Who Let the Dogs Out?

A while back I wrote about the abuse of the generous policy at Walt Disney World to accommodate people with special needs.  It had been widely reported that their system to make these visits enjoyable for people with disabilities was being scammed by people purporting to need assistance but not really.  There were even reports that some people who had found a way – legit or not – to get a disability pass, were renting themselves out as special guides to the park to help people avoid long lines.

Officials at Disney World recently announced they have revamped their special guest  assistance program, due to this  growing abuse.  While I am happy to know they are making the attempt to eliminate these scams, it also saddens me to know that now many people who legitimately benefit from accommodations to enjoy the park will not be able to easily get such assistance.

I’m not sure which is worse – that someone would pretend to have a disability to gain special privileges or the people who make money off their disability by selling themselves as park escorts.   I thought this would be the worst abuse I could imagine for taking advantage of a system that is meant to aid people with disabilities.  That was until this week when I came across this next story –

People are falsely claiming their dogs as service animals so they can take them everywhere they go.  Yes, you just read that right- a growing number of people are masquerading their dogs as service animals, meant to assist people with disabilities.

It seems anyone can sew a vest for a dog, put a patch on it that labels the animal a service animal, and then demand the right to take this dog on shopping excursions, out to restaurants and onto public transportation.  Anyone who claims their dog is a service animal can take it onto an airplane in the main cabin.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes this passing off of an animal as a service dog when it really isn’t,  a minor offense and unfortunately it is one of those laws that is hard to enforce.

Recently I was shopping with my husband and we passed a woman carrying a Chihuahua  in her purse–it was wearing a  vest declaring it a service dog.  This was before I had seen the story on service dog fraud, but I had to wonder aloud to my husband what help this dog could be, or if this woman just couldn’t bear to treat her dog like a dog and leave it at home while she shopped. We have a friend who has a service dog and her dog has dialed 911 more than once to summon medical help.  I can’t picture what a Chihuahua  might be able to do, or able to retrieve, to assist their owner.

A shop owner or the airline clerk is limited in how they can question the status of an animal – they are not allowed to ask for a demonstration of the dog’s abilities.  They may only inquire if the dog is necessary because of a disability but not what disability that might be,  and they may also ask what tasks the dog is trained to perform.

Go ahead and google  “rules for service dogs” and the very first hit will take you to a site that will allow you to register your dog as a service dog for $49.  For $199 they will send you identification cards with your pet’s photo, service dog certificates and even a deluxe service dog vest and dog tags that anyone can put on their family pet and masquerade as a working dog. You buy one of their kits and suddenly your dog can go on vacation with you and stay in that hotel room, eat in that favorite restaurant and even go to Walt Disney World and ride most of the attractions.

Never mind that your dog may not behave, doesn’t understand the rules of engagement in public and generally prefers to sniff the behind of other dogs and hump the leg of your best friend.  If you put a vest on that dog, it can go everywhere you go.   A service dog may only be excluded from a shop if it is uncontrolled or not housebroken.

We all have pets or know of animals that are cute and loveable, but that doesn’t make them suited to function in public in crowded or strange environments.  Service dogs are highly trained and are especially conditioned to respond appropriately in public situations.  Service dogs provide a critical service whereas pets are companions. Please don’t take me wrong – I know pets are special, too, but there is a huge difference between pets and service animals.

A service dog will not be aggressive toward people or other animals unless they sense their owner is in danger.  You won’t find a service dog begging for table scraps in a restaurant- they are almost exclusively kept on a dog food diet.  When in public, service dogs are working hard to assist their owner with activities of daily life that many of us take for granted,  and they don’t have time to be distracted by unusual  sights and smells. A service dog can make a huge difference for people with limited mobility, including the problems that may come with Multiple Sclerosis.

Advocates for service dogs are now asking the government to look at ways to certify service dogs.  For now, service dogs are not required to be registered  so the privacy of the owner may be protected.  It appears the government agency in charge of the ADA may need to revise rules for service animals, much like Disney World had little choice but to change their policies.  In both cases, the people who need extra help and consideration are hurt while the frauds pretending to have disabilities, continue to take advantage of the system.

Wishing you well,


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