Animals, especially dogs, can be remarkable in improving the lives of human beings. Appropriately trained and selected animals can assist with physical, psychological and metabolic challenges; and they can help people function at higher levels and afford them the ability to expand their lives.

But assistance animal fraud is rampant today and threatens those with legitimate needs. Simply placing a vest on a pet animal is unethical. Twenty-five states have enacted laws making service dog fraud a criminal offense. Between 2016 and 2017, airlines reported a 75 percent increase in animals traveling as emotional support animals (ESAs). In that same period, they reported an 84 percent increase in animal issues, such as urination, defecation and biting. I know personally of two legitimate assistance dogs that have been attacked by another dog wearing a vest. One of these animals had to retire, leaving his handler on a waiting list to get another dog.

So what is a legitimate assistance animal? The absolute requirement for any assistance animal is a person’s documented ongoing medical or psychological impairment, and there are two categories covered under federal law: service animals (SAs) and emotional support animals (ESAs). SAs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ESAs are governed by the American Air Carrier Act (AACA) and Fair Housing Act (FHA). Both require calm, tractable, controllable animals who do not urinate, defecate, bark randomly or demonstrate aggression in public. Even legitimate assistance animals can be denied access if they represent a threat to safety, fundamentally alter goods or services (like barking in a movie theater) or place an undue burden on a business (like defecating in a restaurant).

Service animals, primarily dogs, are specifically trained to perform tasks to assist individuals with their disability. Those individuals may have a visible impairment like mobility or blindness, or they could have an invisible challenge like diabetes, epilepsy or a psychiatric disability. Service dog training starts in puppyhood with extensive socialization and exposure to novel stimuli. Obedience training happens over the first 12 to 18 months of age and is followed by another 12 to 18 months of specific service training. The overall cost of producing an SA ranges between $10,000 and $50,000. Many service dogs are furnished free of charge by nonprofit organizations, like Canine Assistants. There are lengthy waiting lists for these dogs, as need exceeds supply. Some service dogs are privately trained by appropriately qualified trainers. Service animals have access to most public areas.

ESAs are not trained to perform specific support tasks; their role is more passive. Unlike SAs, ESAs are required to carry a letter stating the sole handler is under the current care of a specific mental health care provider. ESAs are only guaranteed access to air carriers and housing that does not allow pets. They are not guaranteed access to restaurants, hotels, public transit or other public venues. Access limitations may not be enforced by a given venue, but they are not required to do so by the law. The Department of Transportation is currently considering prohibiting amphibians, spiders, rodents and non-household birds as ESAs, however, no ruling has been made.

Legitimate service dog organizations provide a plethora of information for public education and may give guidance about obtaining an animal for an individual with true need. Sadly, there are many organizations who will “register a dog” (there is currently no governmental registry, so this has no value) and sell vests and other equipment to anyone. Some of these sites may register an animal for any user and may not even require mental health documentation or ask any questions about the animal’s temperament or suitability. All they want is your money. Laws do not exist to prosecute these sites.

Please feel free to contact Loving Hands Animal Clinic if you have questions about this or any other article. You can join us free of charge for our next Pet Care University class Aug. 31 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the clinic. Dr. Joanne Roesner will present the topic, “Behavior: Normal and Problematic in Dogs and Cats.”

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