There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.
– U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, July 20, 2015
You know, I’m just going to come out and say it instead of building up to the point here. I am just totally sick of these people with fake emotional support dogs. Of course there are some individuals with severe PTSD, autism, other diagnoses that honestly and absolutely depend on an emotional support animal to function, in addition to those who rely on assistance dogs due to a disability. These are considered “Service Dogs”. But suddenly more and more people are going on the internet and paying fifty dollars or more for a phony certificate, ID and a vest, or saying “Oh, I’m anxious” and asking their doctor or therapist for a letter. Or even acquiring a “verified” letter by a mental health professional by answering a few questions on a website, so that they can take their pets anywhere they like; on vacation on a plane and into public places at their convenience. They also do it so they can rent a house or apartment that specifically prohibits pets otherwise.
A few weeks ago I got into it with someone I know who was proudly displaying her dog’s new fake ESA (emotional support animal) certificate and service vest on Facebook, and boasting that she could now take him across the country on the plane with her on vacation instead of leaving him home. This woman is a feisty, independent, outgoing person who drives across the country alone and has enjoyed traveling and camping in her little tent all by herself for years, even in remote places. While it might be nice to go camping with your dog for companionship and protection, I was surprised about the ESA part, so I asked her why she suddenly went the service dog route with her pet. She said “I got a note from my therapist….. sometimes I have anxiety”. I wonder more if in the near future this is actually to make it more convenient for her to find a place to rent with a large dog. Maybe that sounds terrible but I think my suspicions are probably true. I mentioned that those sites are fake, but I think she already knew that as much as I knew by my saying it that it would push her buttons. I could feel her getting defensive but I don’t care. I know this sounds judge-y, but I just respect her a little bit less now.
In a different vein, my neighbor, due to her long-standing, legitimate and severe mental health issues, insists she has to take her emotional support dog to the supermarket – in the cart. Just what everyone else wants to be exposed to; her dog’s butt in the shopping cart where the next person is going to put their food. Doing that is not OK under the ADA. They must be carried or remain on the floor. This sudden plague of emotional support dogs (and cats, rats, birds, pigs, etc.) has become such a frequent problem that one of our local supermarkets actually has had to post a sign as you enter the store saying dogs are not allowed in the shopping carts. Also I have to wonder – I’m sorry, this may sound a bit harsh and might create some backlash – but if you are out and about doing lots of things without your ESA when it suits you but claim anxiety when you feel like taking your dog to buy groceries and stare at it while it sits in the cart, maybe try taking a friend with you instead. Or bring your teddy bear. Or take a pill.
Why, this afternoon, after not blogging for a seriously long stretch of time, am I ranting about this? Having just returned from the city clerk’s office where I was dutifully renewing my dog’s annual license, providing proof of vaccination and a check, I inquired whether they would like you to provide any documentation if you have an assistance dog. I asked this because I am severely hearing impaired and I depend on my dog in the home always – and sometimes outside – to alert me to certain situations. There is nothing “official” about my dog as there is no “official” registry for them at this time – ESA or otherwise. He has not been trained at a facility and is not required to be – I will provide the back story to that further along.
The nice lady behind the desk said “Oh, a therapy dog? You just need a certificate or a letter from your doctor.” If so, they don’t charge you for the license.
First of all, a Therapy Dog by definition is a dog trained to provide comfort and affection to people in nursing homes, schools, hospitals, hospice, trauma situations or disaster areas. While a therapy dog needs to complete a certain criteria to gain a certificate and access to these areas, they are neither Assistance nor Service animals. They are not covered or protected under the Federal Housing Act or Americans with Disabilities act, nor do they have public access rights beyond the specific places listed above where they are visiting or working. I realized that she was not talking about a Therapy Dog though -what she actually meant was an Emotional Support Dog. And that’s where I kind of lost it when I told her those certificates and cards are fake and sold on the internet, and that there is actually no such thing as a legitimate registry. She didn’t seem to care and deflected my statement, refusing to engage in dialog about it. I suspect she might happen to have an “emotional support dog” herself. These days it seems about everyone does. This society must be really over the edge since everyone and their mother suddenly needs an emotional support animal.
I am going to put the facts here. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Disability Rights Section, “emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are not considered service animals under the ADA. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.
The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
Somehow I think that most of these supposed support animals who are taken into stores, restaurants and on planes are not taking any “trained” specific action to avoid an oncoming anxiety attack. Furthermore, the section states that “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
I find myself in a limbo place concerning all this. A number of years back, as my hearing began to worsen, I started looking into the possibility of acquiring a hearing assistance dog. There are a few places that train them. At the time, the wait list was about one to two years, with dogs going to those who are profoundly deaf and are a priority. Perhaps I was in denial, but I felt I was not there yet. The cost of training a hearing dog is huge, about $10,000 and upwards. Although they are provided free to those in need, they are first made available to people who live alone (I don’t), who have a specific amount of dB loss (I now easily meet that criteria but I didn’t back then) and some of the providers urge recipients to hold fundraisers in order to offset the cost of the dog. This suggestion causes some discomfort, as I would not even allow a well-meaning friend to initiate a GoFundMe to raise money for my mega-expensive hearing aids which are not covered by insurance. I felt I just couldn’t justify a fundraiser for me while people are suffering greatly after losing everything after hurricanes, that there are children with life-threatening illnesses in need of support, people’s homes have burned down and are left with nothing, people are being bombed in Syria…..I just didn’t feel like I deserved to be high on that kind of roster.
Another roadblock was that I already had a dog, which is considered a distraction to the job of the service dog, therefore negating eligibility. So I found myself in the position of having to train my own dog. According to the ADA, “people with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.” And so we began.
My dog is not social. He is a rescue mill dog who does not like strangers reaching out to pet or grab him and will shy away, although he will not react negatively and is not aggressive. Being a pet with an odd personality to begin with, he is not the most suitable material. He would fail basic eligibility before ever getting into a hearing dog program as he is not a relaxed little guy. But it is what I have to work with now and at least he is very bright.
I started by attending basic obedience courses with him, then inquiring further about trainers who could help to train my dog for the tasks specific to my needs. But there was nobody local who would accommodate us further, so I had to turn to training videos found on the internet. He already provides a service to me in the home – oddly enough (or not) he is totally in sync and stays by my side. When someone is at the door, he lets me know. If there is some kind of commotion going on outside or strange noise inside, he alerts me. When I am out walking with friends and other dogs in the woods, he stays close whether off-leash or on, always keeping me in his view and within a few feet radius. He came and got me when the toaster oven was on fire. He has large bat-ears which are very expressive, so I pay attention to them and depend on them to see where a noise is coming from. I watch him and he watches me. It is clear he is aware of my deafness.
When I take my hearing aids out at night, there is pretty much no sound beyond clicks and thumps and the shrieking of tinnitus. If I am alone and not hearing, it is scary. This is where the dog comes in especially handy, not only in the home but very much in a hotel. If the Significant Other is trying to get my attention from downstairs, he will ring a bell, which I cannot hear, but my dog can. The dog will then come and alert me, barking, tapping me and running back and forth from the source to me until I respond.
“The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.”
The dog should be able to demonstrate two tasks that assist the handler with their specific disability.
So we pretty much have it down on the home front. Taking the dog in public is where I walk a fine line. There are deaf people with trained hearing dogs who feel that dogs who support hearing just in the home are not actually assistance dogs. I don’t necessarily agree with that.
One of the biggest problems I have in public is when someone comes up behind me and says “Excuse me”. This constantly happens to me in stores, outdoor markets, waiting in lines, on the sidewalk. I might be standing in the way with my back to someone who has asked me a number of times to move out of their way, or tries to speak to me, yet I just don’t hear them. Inevitably they think I am rude at the very least, and it has actually caused some people to become extremely annoyed to the point of nastiness when I am intently reading the ingredients on a box, admiring something at a craft fair, a flower garden by a sidewalk, or making a decision about which pasta sauce to buy while inadvertently blocking an aisle. Subsequently, the first task became training my dog to tap me whenever someone says “Excuse me”.
He’s been doing that with more consistency. While I have taken him into the supermarket a few times, I don’t really like to. He’s small, small enough that he could get run over by a shopping cart. I also constantly have to tell strangers not reach out to pet him as he is supposed to be working. He’s so cute that everyone instantly wants to touch him. He doesn’t like it, I don’t like it, and it is distracting. This includes adults allowing their children to rush up to an animal they do not know. You would be amazed how many people do not respect boundaries when it comes to petting a strange dog.
The other thing he does is let me know when someone is walking up behind me on the street, which encompasses safety. That has been a big help. What I would like him to do is alert me when I drop my keys or some other item, which has happened a number of times. When I dropped my keys outside of Trader Joe’s, he merrily trotted away without a backward’s glance. Luckily, he responded to the woman who saw it happen and came up behind me yelling “Excuse me” while waving my keys behind my deaf back. So we are working on that. I have also been trying to train him to alert me to traffic. Not much progress with that task. Unfortunately I think traffic isn’t going to be one of his skills.
Because most of the support I receive from the dog occurs in the home, I don’t take advantage by bringing him everywhere. While he has made the occasional trip to Home Depot and we enjoy dog-friendly outdoor dining, he doesn’t need to come inside a restaurant – he isn’t going to help translate what the waiter asked and order off the menu. I don’t need to take him on a plane. If anything, I think that would be stressful for him and just one more thing along with the suitcase for me to look after or hold on to when I don’t really need to. When I am out and about with other people or traveling with others, they are able to help me if necessary.
I have a vest for the dog, which is not required by law nor is it provided by any official source. The vest is rarely used, but I keep it for those times where it clearly makes people feel better to see it (like in the hotel), even though it is not required. It has also been useful when pointing out to people that the dog is supposed to be assisting me and not petted. However, it is likely that probably 95% of these service vests you see on dogs (except for those that you see on seeing eye dogs, which is a whole other legit subject) were bought along with the fake ID’s and are most likely on animals that are just pets.
One last thing about some of these ESA dogs, both the real ones and the ones that aren’t, is how often you see people who are just disrespectful dog owners in general. They allow them to sit on chairs in restaurants, lunge out of control at people and other dogs from the end of long retractable zip line leashes, bark incessantly, don’t clean up after them and interfere with dogs that are being used for real support. Because of their actions, they generate negativity and resentment from business owners and the community, not only towards those who actually do need their dogs to help them, but towards responsible pet owners as well.
In the event that there ever ends up being truly certifiable criteria for my dog to prove – and that day will surely be coming in the future – I figure it would be good that we are prepared. It is ridiculous that it is easier to buy a bogus certificate and get a licensed health professional to write a letter saying the dog provides comfort due to the stress of my hearing loss rather than the fact that the dog actually is being used to assist with my hearing and having to worry about meeting proof of such.
And that just pisses me off.