by Randy Pierce
Dogs and cats, monkeys and rats, snakes and spiders, and many more were flocking to public places like a legendary ark. People want to know what a “service animal” is. What is the legal right of the “pseudo-service animal’ in the USA?
As a guide dog and guide dog owner, Quinn and I have protected access to almost all public accommodations, thanks to the ADA. What many people do not realize is that the ADA has changed the definition of a service animal effective this month. Previously, any animal could allegedly be trained for service, and the nature of the service provided was vastly undefined. As with most rules, people began to provide a broad array of interpretations and sadly, abuses began. This made things difficult for many business owners and tarnished the hard-earned reputation of legitimate service animals. To protect those business owners and to prevent the erosion of the public trust, the ADA has released new rules and definitions that take effect on March 15, 2011. They have allowed only dogs as service animals, which is a major and significant change, though they have suggested that the miniature horse (dog-sized) should receive reasonable consideration. This change comes with some benefit and sadly some detriment, though the real question is, does it accomplish the goal of ending abuses?
A person handling a service animal must have a disability listed on the ADA website, and while that list may grow, it is far more restrictive than the purposes for which they are claimed. As such, the first question of protection for the public is, “Do you have a disability?” It is of significance that the type of disability may not be requested. The second and final question is “What task is the animal trained to perform for you?” This means that an animal must specifically perform an action that aids in that disability. The ’emotional comfort’ claims, which represent a large portion of fraudulent claims, would not fit into this definition without a little more rule twisting.
It saddens me that extensive fines (up to $55,000.00) exist for places denying access to those with disabilities, yet no punitive measures exist for those propagating a fraud. A bogus Service Animal Registry website exists online today, and continues to ‘sell’ alleged legitimacy. Mock Service Animal vests and harness systems are similarly available for purchase and yet there is no punishment for the sale or use of these. It will be difficult to bring benefit from any change, and this fails to discourage attempts at abuse. Fortunately, any animal that is behaving inappropriately may be requested to leave, so long as this behavior is handled consistently for anyone, human or canine, who is performing it.
I absolutely wish anyone with a legitimate need and benefit from a service animal could have access to that service in the best means possible. I would hope that all such situations require an animal trained to behavioral minimums and require very reasonable consideration of public impact. A Seeing Eye elephant or even Irish wolfhound would have a size impact that seems ridiculous, especially since a ‘curl under my chair’-sized retriever can perform the same function. This is not to say that I believe only a dog is acceptable as a guide, or even that only that size frame can be considered. The challenge is finding something reasonable in a world where too many people are not looking at those terms but rather their own preferences first.
I have encountered many frauds and even have friends who seek to break the rules for their own purposes. I know there are needs more diverse than I could possibly evaluate, and I appreciate the incredible benefit Quinn brings to my world. I advocate on a regular basis for all sides and perspectives, to give very serious and reasonable consideration to all choices and impacts of those choices. I hope some of you may give some serious consideration to and communication on the topic. Education and communication can do much, but action can reduce or prevent deliberate and willful abuse by those who deny service that is required or those who deliberately attempt to fool the system.