The Saint Bernard was wearing a service vest and tearing into a quadriplegic woman’s golden retriever on the floor of the mall food court. Both dogs were allegedly service animals. But after mall security tore the Saint Bernard off, its owner blamed the other dog owner’s disability.
“He said his dog was startled by her wheelchair,” Angela Eaton, one the golden retriever’s trainers told the Daily Beast. “Well service dogs should be growing up around a wheelchair.”
Service animal fraud is a growing problem in dog-friendly Colorado, says Eaton, who has been training service dogs for 35 years. State legislators agree; the Colorado House unanimously passed a bill on Monday that would make it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a service animal in the state. But vague service dog guidelines and a growing acceptance of “emotional support dogs” have blurred the line between pet and working animal.
“According to the testimony we heard in committee, it’s a pretty serious problem. It’s a particularly serious problem in supermarkets, where more and more people are bringing pets and claiming that they’re service animals,” Daniel Kagan, a Colorado state representative sponsoring the bill told the Daily Beast. “Many of these pets misrepresented as service animals are misbehaving, they’re assaulting other dogs on a regular basis, soiling the supermarket, and posing not only a security issue but a health issue.”
His bill would impose a $350 to $1,000 fine for first-time offenders, and penalties up to $5,000 and 10 hours of community service for repeat offenders.
But some disability law experts say the bill oversimplifies the complicated relationship between people with disabilities and their animals. Alison Daniels, director of legal services for Disability Law Colorado testified against the bill, arguing that it would do more harm than good for people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities legitimately get companion animals for housing. So the little fluffy white dog you see is helping them get up in the morning. It's giving them a reason to live,” Daniels told the Daily Beast. “The problem is, people have this companion animal so they think 'I can take this animal to the grocery store or the movies.’"
Daniels says people with disabilities might not understand the distinctions between a certified service animal and a therapy animal, and could stand to lose Section Eight housing or jobs if convicted of falsing presenting their pet as a service dog.
But even the laws governing official service dog certifications are murky.
Eaton and her organization Canine Partners of the Rockies are accredited by Assistance Dogs International, a service dog standards group. ADI-accredited trainers must train dogs to assist people with specific disabilities. A hearing assistance dog should be able to hear a baby crying, or a phone ringing, and lead their owner to the source of the sound. Guide dogs should be able to lead a blind person through traffic. The dogs Eaton trains, which assist people with mobility issues, must be able to open doors and guide wheelchairs.
But no U.S. law requires ADI accreditation, or any other kind of certification for service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act only defines a service animal as "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability."
These loose guidelines have given rise to a cottage industry of “service animal” websites like the National Service Animal Registry, which, for $64.95 plus $7.95 shipping and no background check whatsoever, will send you a package of unofficial service animal ID cards, certificates, and patches. And because the ADA does not set any criteria for service animal training, it’s all perfectly legal.
The site also sells certifications for “emotional support animals,” a classification of animal that does not perform specific physical tasks for people with disabilities, but might help support a person with generalized anxiety, or other mental health issues. These animals -- which sometimes sport official-looking vests or patches -- have seen increasing acceptance on airplanes and in public spaces, assisting people with emotional issues, but creating confusion over the animals’ official classification.
“Even the legislators did not understand the difference between service animal, therapy animal, companion animal, and a pet,” Daniels said. “So [legislators] are taking an area of law that is not well understood and criminalizing it.”
Colorado wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction to craft laws in attempt to keep up with the rise in unofficial support animals.
The city of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin revised their laws to classify service animals as dogs and miniature horses, after a local woman made national news for getting kicked out of a McDonald’s with “Jimmy,” her therapy kangaroo.
Even the Trumps are in on the trend.
Ivana Trump allegedly flashed a therapy animal card when toting her miniature Yorkie into Manhattan’s high-end Altesi Ristorante in June 2014, sparking complaints from other diners.
“Lunch was ruined because Ivana Trump sat next to us with her dog which she even let climb to the table. I told her no dogs allowed but she lied that hers was a service dog,” reads a review on the restaurant’s Google review page, discovered by the New Yorker’s Patricia Marx.
When Marx called the restaurant, owner Paolo Alavian said he was obligated to allow support animals. “She walked into the restaurant and she showed the emotional-support card,” Alavian told her. “Basically, people with the card are allowed to bring their dogs into the restaurant. This is the law.”
But it isn’t the law in New York or in Colorado, despite popular belief.
“As far as the ADA is concerned, the law is not for emotional support animals,” a representative at the Denver Office of Disability Rights told the Daily Beast. “They have to perform a function like open doors to be considered a service animal.”
But as long as people can legally represent their pets as service animals, the state says pet owners and service dog owners will continue to fight for space.
“Right now, if somebody misrepresents that their animal is a service animal, that is not an offence,” Kagan said. “All you have to do to get the access a service animal has, is you have to lie about it and say ‘hey, this is a service animal,’ and there’s not a darn thing anybody can do about it.”
Daniels, meanwhile, says she might reconsider the bill if it followed an extensive program educating people on disability and service animal rights. But she says the state’s biggest offenders are not individual dog owners, but the companies profiting off service animal fraud.
“We're focusing on this group of people who likely doesn't know,” Daniels said. “But the real problem is online. You can say 'how can I get a service animal vest,' punch in a few things, and lo and behold, a service vest is delivered to your door. Those are the people we need to be focusing on.”