In Connecticut last week, a state legislative committee heard testimony about a proposal to slap a $150 fine on anyone who misrepresents their pet as a service animal.

That would be a bargain compared to the $500 punishment the states of Hawaii and Washington began enforcing last month or the $250 that Arizona fraudsters have been at risk of paying since last summer. And it’s certainly a better deal than what Minnesota lawmakers approved last year – $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail for a second offense.

Not an official service animal. Cute, though.

Across the nation, states are cracking down on the frisky challenge of able-bodied pet owners who falsely proclaim Fido or Snickers as an antidote for a disability in order to bring them inside stores, restaurants, hotel rooms and other public places.

“Service dogs do specific things, and every time someone, however well-meaning, calls their hamster or their cat or their supposedly cancer-sniffing poodle their ‘service animal,’ it cheapens and complicates the whole thing,” says Tina Yasmin, 47, of Royal Oak, Mich., whose golden retriever, Bishop, helps with her severe arthritis by picking up things, opening doors and protecting her when she loses her balance.

“This dog is amazing,” she says, “but I’d give Bishop up in a heartbeat not to have this pain.”

What makes a real service animal

Over the past quarter-century, since the Americans With Disabilities Act first gave service animals – specifically dogs, per the law — who work for a person with a disability a “right of public access,” the term has been appropriated by others as a catch-all used interchangeably with assistance animals, emotional support animals and even animals who are said to have some sort of special powers.

They’re not all the same, but millions of Americans try to say they are in order to avoid airline fees and hotel charges, to live in housing where pets are not generally permitted or to let their rottweiler ride in the cart at the supermarket.

Real service animals, as Yasmin noted, are animals—primarily dogs but, in some states miniature horses are also allowed—that have been rigorously trained to perform specific tasks for owners with recognized physical or emotional disabilities. They lead people who are blind, alert people with hearing disabilities to sound, calm, comfort and protect people with post-traumatic stress syndrome or autism.

People who want legitimate service dogs apply for them through a training organization or program that serves their vicinity that is certified by the non-profit Assistance Dogs International. In most cases, there’s an initial written application available on the group’s website that is followed by an in-person or video interview.

How a service animal gets trained

Service animals are usually dogs, although a few states allow miniature horses.

The oldest service-dog provider in the U.S. is NEADS, which has placed more than 1,800 dogs since 1976. Their dogs, mainly Labrador retrievers bred to be service animals, are trained by inmates at seven prisons across New England and, once deemed successfully capable, are paired with a client. The client is expected to live at NEADS’ 18-acre campus in central Massachusetts for two weeks learning how to handle their new “teammate.”

NEADS development director Cathy Zemaitis says clients can wait as long as three years once accepted because matching dogs with owners “is really very personal and it’s very meticulous.”

Roughly 100 dogs are being trained in prisons at any given time. Half won’t make it through the program and eventually are adopted out as pets, she says.

“Professional staff work with the inmate handler to constantly evaluate the dogs to determine where they are best suited,” she says. “Are they best-suited to work with someone who is permanently in a wheelchair or someone who is sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes on crutches?

“It’s not like dealing out a deck of cards,” Zemaitis says.

Groups without live-in campuses typically send trainers to live with a new service dog owner or provide intensive training in the home. That’s the case for Heroes, Horses and Hounds, which primarily uses shelter dogs and also has a prison training program, says the group’s trainer, Jessica Mattson. 

“It’s not like dealing out a deck of cards”
Cathy Zemaitis on placing service dogs with people
Development director, NEADS

All told, training an ADI-certified service animal usually costs $40,000 or more. Clients generally pay about a quarter of that – between $8,000 and $10,000 – and the training group, usually a non-profit, makes up the difference through fundraising and grants.

“Not everyone with a disability is in the position to have a service dog because just like having a pet, you wouldn’t want to bring them on board if you were unable to properly care for them,” Zemaitis says.

She says each potential recipient has to ask themselves, deep in their heart of hearts: “‘Am I able to properly care for this dog while he works for me and with me?’ ”

The confusing laws

The laws themselves create much of the confusion surrounding service animals. There is no official government registry or license for any of these animals under the ADA, and two other laws—the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act—muddy the waters even more.

The ADA grants a service dog permission to go anywhere with its owner. But it requires establishments to take owners’ words that they have a disability and that the dog mitigates that. Service dogs must almost always be on the floor, though, so stores can reject an animal for riding, say, in a shopping cart.

Cute, but also not a service animal

The Fair Housing Act is looser. A 1988 amendment to that law forces landlords to provide “reasonable accommodations” for what the Department of Housing and Urban Development calls “assistance animals.”

Likewise, the Air Carrier Access Act allows for animals who provide “emotional support” and permits many animal options other than dogs, according to the Department of Transportation, although airlines can reject snakes, rodents and spiders.

The DOT says airlines can either accept the “credible verbal assurances of an individual with a disability using the animal” or demand a letter from a mental health professional treating the passenger specifying why the animal is necessary.

“Support” versus “Service”

Zemaitis and Mattson say the flexibility of airlines in particular opened a floodgate for people to believe they are legally entitled to bring their pets into stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals and workplaces simply by asserting they are “support animals” or “emotional support” animals.

Then they become flummoxed – and sometimes litigious – when they are refused access, says Carleen Crespo, spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, a nonprofit that provides an online brochure about the ADA and service animal issues.

“These laws don’t allow you to go anywhere you want and don’t protect you from the consequences of uncontrolled behavior.”
Carleen Crespo
Spokewoman, Mid-Atlantic ADA Center

“Those laws don’t allow you to go anywhere you want and don’t protect you from the consequences of uncontrolled behavior,” Crespo says. “People think it doesn’t matter if that dog bites someone or destroys property. Some people think it’s a service dog, it’s a therapy animal, it can do anything and I’m not held responsible.’ That is not the case.”

Also legally meaningless: The many laminated cards and official-looking vests sold on the Internet that assert an animal is a “certified” or “registered” as a service, assistance or support animal.

Sometimes, Crespo says, they get calls from people asking legal questions who have been referred by online vendors, as if the center and websites selling fake certifications are linked.

They are not.

“Obviously we would be delighted if we didn’t have to be telling people, ‘Yes, I’m sorry, you just wasted $75 on a card that’s not going to help you be able to take your dog places,’ ” she says.

Guinea pigs and chickens

What’s more, several state legislatures have found this a sticky area of federal law rife with conflicts between the ADA, the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. 

In Georgia, for instance, the Legislature convened the Senate Study Committee on Service Animals for the Physically and Mental Impaired Persons late last year to hold hearings at which airline and restaurant groups complained about service-animal abuse.

“I’m not sure how your guinea pig is going to do a trained task to mitigate a disability.”
Cathy Zemaitis
Development director, NEADS

Yet the panel decided to back a public education campaign rather than write a law criminalizing people who lie about their disabilities or their pets’ capabilities.

“It’s just very obvious that it’s so confusing that it’s very hard to write legislation that isn’t going to lead to unintended consequences that we’re going to have to come back and undo later,” says State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a medical doctor who volunteers to bring her specially trained dog, Dobie, to hospitals to comfort patients.

Zemaitis, however, thinks many people are “conveniently confused”—and rejects the very concept of “emotional support” animals as making the world harder for both people with legitimate disabilities and the trained animals who work for them.

“I’m not sure how your guinea pig is going to do a trained task to mitigate a disability,” Zemaitis says. “You can call it your comfort animal if you want. You like to have a chicken in the house because it brings you comfort? Go for it. But don’t get on the plane and sit next to me with your chicken.”

Watch this