Service dogs dilemma: ‘Loads of fakes’ detrimental to legitimate helper animals
From Suzanne Hirt, The Daytona Beach News Journal:
People have become emboldened to bring their pets along on public outings thanks to legal gray areas and widespread availability of service animal insignia.
When Eric Jakob’s blood sugar levels are out of balance, Tinkerbell knows.
“She can smell it,” said Jakob, of DeLand, a six-year diabetic and soon-to-be service dog owner. His 2½-year-old yellow Labrador will lick him hurriedly, whine or nuzzle to get his attention. “She actually deciphers (if my sugar is high or low)” and speeds or slows her licking motion accordingly.
Tinkerbell lay beside Jakob’s chair as he and 16 other Florida residents completed a written exam during an Aug. 1 training session with New Horizons Service Dogs. The Orange City nonprofit partners trained golden retrievers and Labs with people who need assistance, and requires both classroom and field tests before permanently pairing animals with applicants.
Many use wheelchairs or have sustained physical injuries that limit their range of motion. Others have “invisible” conditions — post-traumatic stress disorder, autism or autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The Americans with Disabilities Act grants all of them — and their service dogs — access anywhere members of the public are allowed, with very few exceptions.
But “loads and loads of fakes” may be swaying public sentiment against legitimate service dogs and their owners as well as distracting the animals from their duties, said New Horizons founder and executive director Janet Severt, who has relied on a wheelchair for mobility for the past 53 years. A blood clot in her spinal cord struck at age 7, paralyzing her from the waist down.
Wyland, her golden retriever, sticks close to her wheelchair and picks up her keys when she drops them on the floor. “See how his tail wags? He loves helping,” she said. But frequent encounters with small dogs have made him fearful in public.
“We come around the corner in a store and see a stroller. You think it’s a baby, but out comes a little yapper lunging at his face.”
People are emboldened to bring their pets along on public outings thanks to legal gray areas and widespread availability of service animal insignia. “If you go anywhere on the internet you can buy a vest,” said Severt.
“If you Google ‘service dogs,’ the first thing that comes up is a registry. It’s totally bogus.” Yet pet owners purchase a certificate and claim they “have paperwork” when questioned, she said.
When those animals behave badly in restaurants and retail stores, it can ruin a nice meal or shopping experience and give service animals a bad name, several Volusia County residents told The News-Journal.
“I’m all in for animals that are truly there to support,” said Pam Hargis, of Enterprise, whose husband is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “But I think this cat and dog thing has gone overboard.”
Hargis said she recently witnessed a dog standing on one New Smyrna Beach restaurant’s bar while servers watched in silence, and saw a dog and cat eating hamburger from a plate on another local bar top.
She also knows people who push their “emotional support cats” around in a stroller. “Give me a break,” she said. “Unfortunately, people who work at these places don’t know where they can draw the line.”
Debbie Colancheck of Daytona Beach encountered a large dog flopped out in an aisle during a riverboat dinner cruise she took with her husband.
“You had to walk over him to get to the food,” said Colancheck, noting she is afraid of big dogs. “When we complained to the ship captain, he actually said it was the first time that had happened to him and he didn’t know what to do.”
Dogs that bark incessantly in stores or ride in shopping carts seem to get a free pass, too, she said.
One Florida grocery chain has taken measures to curb such frustrations.
A sign near the cart bay at an Orange City Publix instructs customers, “For food safety reasons, only service animals that are specifically trained to aid a person with disabilities are permitted within the store.” It continues in bold lettering: “Service animals are not permitted to sit or ride in shopping carts.”
Service dogs shouldn’t be riding in carts, anyway, Severt said: “Four on the floor” is the accepted rule. Small service dogs trained to alert their owners about impending medical issues typically ride in a pouch on their partner’s chest — the best vantage point for monitoring vital signs, she said.
New Horizons is accredited through Assistance Dogs International, which sets standards in dog training and health, client certification and several other areas. Severt said she ensures both the people and animals her organization trains are well versed in proper etiquette.
Patti Goffe, an experienced volunteer trainer and service dog owner, taught restaurant-focused commands to the group assembled Aug. 1.
To deter a service dog from shaking and spreading hair inside a restaurant, Goffe instructed group members to adjust their dog’s vest and give the command “leave it” before moving away from the table after a meal.
Owners also should keep a close a grip on their dog’s leash so patrons at nearby tables don’t worry about the dog approaching their food, Goffe said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes clear that service animals must be allowed in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
It defines service animals as dogs or, believe it or not, miniature horses that “are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” And the work or task “must be directly related to the person’s disability,” the Act states.
For instance, Valerie Dennis, 29, of Fort Lauderdale, is paralyzed from the waist down and relies on a wheelchair for mobility. But she also suffers episodes of further paralysis that affect her vocal cords. She can’t call for help, but her golden retriever, Loyalty, is trained to alert her husband or whoever may be nearby.
“Can I survive without (Loyalty)?” Dennis said. “I have been, but it’s so much nicer to have her.”
Others in the New Horizons group require a dog’s services for less obvious conditions.
When Julia Wilkins, 16, has spells of autism-induced anxiety, Montauk will “blanket” her, leaning his weight against her chest. Roydrick Jones is a 47-year-old Gulf War veteran who battles post-traumatic stress disorder. His dog, Gepetto, keeps strangers from approaching too close behind him.
And then there’s Jennifer Fernandez, of Lake Mary. Her autistic son, Ashton, 7, is prone to “eloping.” He runs and hides, and won’t answer his parents’ calls, said Fernandez, 37. She has five other children, but family outings to the movies or theme parks are high-stress occasions.
Now, Ashton is tethered to his service dog, Arlo. Both wear vests connected by a leash. If Ashton tries to run away, Fernandez said, Arlo will lie down, acting as an anchor.
Store managers and disgruntled members of the public are more likely to hassle those with “invisible” conditions, according to a Bunnell woman who owns a dog- and exotic animal-training business.
“People are going to give you trouble because they’ve seen viral videos about an emotional support peacock on an airline,” said Marina Somma, owner and trainer at Tipsy Turvy. Emotional support animals can supply real comfort, Somma said.
She recently trained a wallaby for a girl with cerebral palsy, and has a skunk training session coming up on her calendar, but those animals don’t have the same legal protections as service dogs.
“If I live on a farm and my only animal is a peacock, and that’s my motivation to get up in the morning, that’s my emotional support animal,” said Somma. For that reason, she noted, the law does require such animals be admitted in housing and on airlines.
“The biggest problem I see happening is a lot of people push the emotional support angle,” she said. “Business owners don’t really understand the difference between (emotional support animals and service dogs). They feel obligated to let the animal in.”
Data provided by the State Attorney’s Office underscores business owners’ predicament. At least eight people have been charged for interfering with a service animal in Judicial Circuit 7, which is comprised of Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties. In most of those cases, a retail worker or desk clerk was accused of denying access to a customer with a service dog or asking questions about the dog that are not permitted by law. None were prosecuted.
The Americans with Disabilities Act lists two questions that service dog handlers may be asked: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? And what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Misrepresenting a dog as a service animal is also a crime. But those guidelines aren’t enough to weed out the fakes, said Severt. “Everyone is so afraid of litigation.”
She likes the idea of a government-regulated registry, and a notation on driver licenses and identification cards that could be provided as proof of disability.
“We see people come in Walmart all the time with little dogs in wagons,” said Jakob. “It takes away from dogs like Tinkerbell who are there to do a service.”