Bogus ‘Service Animal Certifications’ Increasingly Being Sold Online

Story at-a-glance -

  • Service dogs or animals who provide mental, emotional or physical support have made it possible for people with disabilities to live independently, but now, there are websites advertising bogus certification for support animals
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says support animals don’t have the same federal protections as service animals, and business owners may ask someone with a disability only two questions regarding their service animal
  • Some people purchase vests or certification to identify their animals as needed support without their animal having actual qualifications behind their label — in some cases simply to bring their favorite animal with them into public places
  • It’s often obvious when an animal is a bona fide service dog, such as when they’re guiding someone who is unable to see, is in a wheelchair or has trouble with stability or balance, but other times, disabilities aren’t evident
  • According to the ADA, there are regulations in place regarding service dogs, such as what to do if someone is afraid of or allergic to service animals, whether restaurants or theaters are exempt, and whether extra fees are allowed

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Service dogs or animals who provide mental, emotional or physical support have transformed the lives of scores of people, as they make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently. Since new laws have sanctioned the public appearance of service animals, the lives of their humans are far easier and less stressful, as Katherine Moore, who is legally blind, can attest.

“When you have a service animal it's like you are one. When I put my hand on his harness it's like an extension of my arm … That’s like putting a value on your freedom. How do you do that? How do you say what your freedom is worth? It’s worth everything.”1

Training for service animals is wide-ranging and extensive, which is why Moore says she’s able to live a full life, including working and commuting, just as she did before she lost her ability to see. One of the few organizations in Tennessee that specializes in service dog training, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs (SMSD),2 focuses on training dogs that will be used by wounded veterans. Mike Kitchens, chairman of SMSD, explains:

“Every dog that we have we will take to Harley Davidson and have them start up the motorcycles. We will take them to the baggage area at the airport. Revolving doors. They have to be so environmentally stable because the intent is for that dog to be able to accompany that veteran wherever he goes.”3

Other animals may provide emotional comfort, but they don’t necessarily fall under the same federal protections as service animals. In fact, Dr. Zenithson Ng from the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s College of Veterinary Medicine contends that emotional support animals are pets. They may alleviate symptoms of conditions their humans have, and even be designated by mental health professionals, but still, they’re not considered service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

“While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.”4

Bogus Service Dog Certifications: ‘There’s No Such Thing’

Where there’s a service, privilege or right, especially when it comes to animals, it seems there’s always people willing to bend the rules. It usually involves money, and selling so-called “service dog certification” to designate animals with qualifications they don’t actually have are no exception. Needless to say, the types of service and support animals are vast and can be confusing. Here’s a chart that summarizes all of the categories.

“It’s major issue for us because we see it all. We really do,” Kitchens says. “You can Google 'service dog access’ and you will come up with multiple organizations that for $69.95 we will send you a service dog certification. Well, there is no such thing.”5 There’s also no national registry for animals who are designated helpers for humans, Ng says.

For a fee, there are dozens of websites that offer vests for dogs to wear that “certify” them as certified service, emotional support or therapy animals. There’s another reason why some people are willing to purchase vests without their animal having actual qualifications behind their label. WATE.com notes that for some, it’s also a way to bring their favorite animal with them into public places.

Ng, who’s a member of the steering committee on human-animal interaction with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), says the problem is a hot topic among personnel responsible for governing the situation due to what he terms as an “onslaught” of problems the AVMA has run into recently. He also notes:

“We are so lucky in this society to have this term of emotional support animal and … we really should designate that for the people who need them and the animals that are well behaved in public settings. So when people are taking advantage of the system that's really hard, it’s disappointing.”6

Service Animals: Training to Perform Their True Function

The ADA acknowledges that it’s often fairly obvious when an animal is merely accompanying someone in a public place as a pet, or if it’s a bona fide service animal; you’ll know the latter is the case if a dog is guiding someone who is either blind or unable to see clearly, or helping someone who has trouble with stability or balance or is in a wheelchair. However, sometimes disabilities are not always visible to bystanders. The ADA, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, states:

“When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”7

Further, service animals are limited to dogs under Title II and III of the ADA, as of March 15, 2011.8 Local laws prohibiting specific breeds of dogs do not apply to service animals.

The ADA states that a “service animal” refers to any dog individually trained to do what is necessary to help someone with a disability, whether it’s physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental. It makes clear, however, that emotional support animals, comfort animals and therapy dogs are not in the same category: They’re not service animals. Similarly, the work service animals perform must be related directly to their human’s disability. In addition:

“It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”9

ADA Facts Regarding Service Animals

An animal may or may not be wearing a special collar or harness. Some, but not all, are certified, licensed and/or have identification papers stating as such; however, they may not be carrying those papers with them. Most service dogs perform jobs most are familiar with, such as Seeing Eye dogs, seizure response dogs and those who alert people with hearing impairments.10

It’s important to note, though, that some local and state governments have special rules for people entering businesses or public places with support animals aside from service dogs, such as emotional support animals, so it’s best to check with these agencies to find out if such ordinances exist. From a page on the ADA’s website, facts regarding service dogs in businesses include:11

A service animal must be permitted to accompany an individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go and must not be segregated from other customers.

Even if an establishment has “no pets” signs posted, service animals, again, are not pets. Further, the ADA requires proprietors of “restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities” to change the wording in such postings to accommodate service animals needed by people with disabilities.

ADA rules supersede local and state laws stating that only guide dogs are admitted to enter a business to assist individuals with disabilities — so refusing to allow other types of service animals violates the ADA. That said, service animals must be under control, and they must be housebroken.

Businesses are not allowed to charge customers with service animals any maintenance, deposits or cleaning fees, even if such charges are in place for pets. However, if a service dog does damage in, say, a hotel, proprietors can charge the customer with the disability, but only if the hotel’s policy is to charge non-disabled guests for similar damage.

Taxi companies may object to a service dog accompanying a disabled person getting into their cabs, but refusing to pick someone up for this reason is also a violation, even if the taxi company is privately owned, and they can’t raise the fare.

Service Animals: Sometimes Other Rules Apply

There are dozens of situations regarding service animals in public places, and probably just as many exceptions. For instance, the care and conduct of service animals is the responsibility of the disabled person they’re with — the animal’s owner. Business owners aren’t required to provide food, care or a special location for the animal.

Arguably one of the greatest concerns people have about service animals relates to fear of the animal becoming a threat to themselves or their customers. But fear of animals, dogs included, or allergies to animals are not good enough reasons to refuse service. The business or government entity is expected to find solutions if employees, other customers or travelers are afraid of or allergic to dogs, such as allowing more or even a separated space.12

As for air travel, the rules are different. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) says airlines must allow both service and emotional support animals to travel in the cabin with the people they’re helping. True, the rules for the latter are getting more strict in light of a number of unfortunate animal incidents on flights.

For that reason, WATE News notes, people who want to travel with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals may be required to supply specific documentation, including proof of their disability and why their animal is necessary, well before their trip.

People with disabilities who want more information regarding special circumstances, including air travel, may also want to check the provisions made under the Fair Housing Act, which can be found on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development site,13 as it includes specifications for service and emotional support animals.