Service Animal or Pet?: The Issue with Service Animal Certifications
A woman walks into a court house. Trailing her, on a leash, is a chocolate lab with a blue vest. She stops at the security desk and asks directions for the court clerk’s office. The security guard points down the hall, then looks down at her dog. “Ma’am, we don’t allow pets in the court house,” he politely says. Straight-lipped she responds, “This is my service animal,” and walks off in the direction the guard pointed. Most people would assume a couple of things about this fact scenario. First, that the lab really was a service dog. Second, that the guard cannot ask the woman any questions related to her animal. However, both assumptions are wrong.
Unfortunately, more and more people are claiming their dogs are service animals so they can take their dogs with them in public places. Statistically it is almost impossible to determine how many pet owners are abusing the system, mainly because the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), does not require service animals to be registered or have official certification. In fact, under the ADA, a service animal does not have to wear a vest, ID tags or a specific harness. Furthermore, a person with a disability has the right to train the dog themselves and is not required to use a professional service dog training program. The kicker is, for people who wish to fake needing a service animal, they can get on the internet, and order a certificate and identification card for their pet, identifying it as a service animal. These websites sell service animal certifications, registrations, and vests, regardless of the fact that under the ADA, identification is not required.
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (only dogs are recognized as service animals). The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. A common example of a service animal, that falls within the ADA definition, is a dog trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure. However, the ADA does not recognize emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals as service animals. If the animal has not been trained to perform a specific job or task, then it does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA. But, let’s say a dog has been trained to sense the onset of an anxiety attack, and then takes a specific action to help its handler avoid the attack or lessen its impact, then this dog would be a service animal.
As far as employers go, if an employee has a disability and has made a request for an accommodation, in the form of bringing her service animal to work, an employer must reasonably accommodate unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship to the operation of the business or present a direct threat to health and safety. As with any request for an accommodation, the employer may need specific information regarding the employee’s disability and how the service animal’s presence will relate to her ability to perform the duties of the job, in order to evaluate the request.
Kansas has similar definitions of service animals as the ADA, but specifically defines: assistance dog, guide dog, hearing assistance dog, professional therapy dog, and service dog. Like the ADA, Kansas specifically excludes dogs used for comfort, protection or personal defense from the definition of an assistance dog. Also, service animals are allowed in public places, all common carriers (i.e. airplanes, railroad trains, buses, street cars, cabs), hotels, restaurants, and other places to which the general public is invited. If an animal is in a public place, or one of the areas previously listed, and it is unclear whether the dog is a service animal or not, an employee of that public place may ask two questions.
(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The main difference between Kansas laws and the ADA is that Kansas does have identification requirements. If a question arises as to whether an animal does qualify as an assistance dog the person with a disability may produce an identification card or letter. The contents of the card or letter depend on whether the dog was trained by a facility, school or trainer, or, whether the assistance dog was trained by the person using the dog. If it is the former, the card or letter must be provided by the training facility, school or trainer that trained the dog and must contain the following information: legal name of the dog user; the name, address and telephone number of the facility, school or trainer; whether the dog is designated as a guide, hearing assistance or service dog; and a picture of the dog user and the dog. If the owner of the dog trained the dog, then the card must contain the following: the legal name of the dog’s owner; the dog user’s address; a statement that the dog has been trained to mitigate the dog user’s disability; and a picture of the dog and the dog user. Again though, this relates back to the real issue of people pretending to have a service animal, when in reality, the dog has not been trained to perform a specific task and has a “certificate,” thanks to internet websites.
Some states, including Kansas, have taken a harsher stance on punishing those individuals who are pretending to have a service animal. In Kansas, it is a class A nonperson misdemeanor, if a person represents that she has a right to be accompanied by an assistance dog or represents that she has a disability for the purpose of acquiring an assistance dog. This can result in a sentence of confinement in a county jail for up to one year. While this might be a step in the right direction, it still does nothing to help identify a real service animal from a fake one. The take-away, is that employees of public places have the right to ask the two questions and should if there is a question as to the validity of the service animal.