Fake Service Dogs Make Pet Travel Harder

It’s no secret that I’m appalled by people who claim their pets are service animals. Naturally, I understand the desire to take our pets wherever we go. And yes, compared to other places in the world, the limited access for our pets is frustrating. But taking any action that makes life more difficult for people who need a service animal is wrong. And now the impact of fake service dogs could bite us all.

Border Collie dog looking out from behind bars

An epidemic of fake service dogs

We launched GoPetFriendly.com in 2009 in response to a growing trend. People looked at their pets differently – less like cattle and more like family. There was a desire to include pets in our lives, whether it was brunch with friends or a road trip across the country. Passionate about this movement, we hoped our website would help people discover more things they could do together.

Over the years, the market has responded to meet the needs of animal lovers. There has been a significant increase in the number of hotels that welcome pets. Restaurants, cafes, and bars have outdoor seating areas where pets were allowed. And all sorts of attractions, from beaches to museums, are pet-friendly. Even national parks have started a BARK Ranger program!

LEARN MORE ⇒ The Most Pet-Friendly National Parks in the United States

Florida's Best Pet-Friendly Attraction: Fort De Soto Park and Dog Beach |  GoPetFriendly.com

Of course, not everyone was happy with the pace of change. They want to take their pets everywhere, without limitation, all the time. And the most morally deprived of them choose to portray their pets as fake service dogs, regardless of the fact that their actions cause people to question the legitimacy of real service animals.

Unfortunately, the problem has become endemic. Airlines have been forced to tighten their requirements for service animals and emotional support, and many states have responded with additional legislation.

States respond with tougher laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it a federal crime to pass off your pet as a service animal. Unfortunately, it is rarely enforced. To combat this problem, states have enacted their own laws exceeding federal law penalties for fake service dogs. Currently, 31 states prohibit the misrepresentation of a pet as a service animal. Five other states have laws that criminalize some aspect of service animal fraud. And the problem of fake service dogs remains.

Blind woman and her Golden Retriever service dog

Proposed Legislation in Florida Could Affect All Pet Owners

In 2015, Florida addressed the issue of fake service dogs. In addition to federal charges, misrepresenting a dog as a service animal in Florida is punishable by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. But Orlando State Representative Bruce Antone doesn’t think that’s enough.

“I see it as a growing problem,” Antone said. “You just see people growing or pushing the boundaries of everything. Along with pets, there is an explosion of people taking their pets to stores and restaurants.

Antone knows that the problem of pets in restaurants has already been solved, but he thinks something stronger is needed.

“I just feel like if we don’t put some sort of stopgap in place now, it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “Not everyone understands what the law is.”

The solution proposed by Antone is presented in House Bill 243. The measure would still allow restaurants to welcome pets to their outdoor seating areas, but would make it illegal to bring non-service animals inside retail establishments, restaurants, bars , lounges or “any other similar place of business in which the public congregate”.

The bill includes the following recommended penalties for violations of the proposed law:

(a) A warning for the first offence.

(b) A fine of $100 for the second violation.

(c) Thirty hours of community service for a disability serving organization, or other entity or organization at the discretion of the court, to be completed within 6 months for the third and subsequent offences.

Antone thinks his bill has a 60% chance of passing in the 2020 session of Congress.

The potential impact of this bill

I completely agree with Rep Antone’s concern about fake service animals. And I agree that people should comply with laws that prohibit pets inside restaurants. However, his proposal does a grave injustice to responsible pet owners. If passed, this legislation would create significant new barriers for pet owners who reside in Florida and those who view it as a travel destination.

By banning pets inside “retail establishments”, Antone’s bill would no longer allow pet owners to shop at boutiques, pet supply stores , indoor malls, and home goods, home supplies, and other stores that currently allow pets.

Fake Service Dogs Make Pet Travel Harder

Additionally, taprooms, cafes, winery tasting rooms, lounges and bars would also be banned. Admittedly, one can imagine “business places in which the public gathers” encompassing hotel lobbies and museums. And there will be no hope for the creative expansion of pet-friendly destinations, like the cinema accepting dogs which recently opened in Plano, Texas.

Unintended consequences

Besides driving away tourists and provoking residents, I fear that Antone’s bill will have more serious consequences. By banning pets in places that have historically chosen to welcome them, more people may feel pressured to misrepresent their pets. And, given the relatively inconsequential penalties on offer, it’s foreseeable that this legislation could actually lead to more bogus service dogs.

For those who abide by the new bans, banning them indoors could mean more pets in cars. This could be a life-threatening situation in a hot, sunny climate like Florida.

LEARN MORE ⇒ Is it illegal to leave animals alone in cars

What is the solution ?

The proposed Florida bill has wider implications. Already 36 states have authorized fake service dog laws. If this legislation is passed, it could become a model for the rest of the country, and the strides we’ve made in including pets in our lives would evaporate.

Of course, I hope that doesn’t happen. So how do I think Florida should handle fake service dogs?

Step 1: Apply applicable laws

First, Florida should enforce the law it already has on the books. The possibility of being slapped with a $500 fine and sixty days in jail is enough to grab the attention of anyone considering deforming their pet.

Border Collie dog looking out from behind bars

Step 2: Empower Business Owners

Across the country, we are seeing establishments implementing more inclusive policies for pets. Rather than imposing more restrictive laws, why not encourage these business owners and empower them to be the first line of defense against bogus service dogs?!

Many owners and managers are unaware of their service animal rights. And recognizing an assistance dog may not be easy. Service animals can help people with various conditions, such as autism, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. So, to determine if a person is telling the truth about their service dog, business owners or staff can ask two questions: Is it a service animal? and For what service is he trained?

The answers to these questions can be a quick way to weed out imposters, as legitimate dog handlers should have no trouble detailing the services their pet provides. It is possible that some cheeky liars also provide reasonable answers. But that still doesn’t mean a business owner can’t remove a dog from the premises.

By law, service dogs must be under control at all times. If an assistance dog behaves in a way that poses a threat to the health or safety of others, such as urinating or defecating indoors, or threatening or biting other customers, and is not under control of the disabled customer, he may be refused service.

Anytime a business owner has a problem with a service dog or suspects that someone is misrepresenting their pet as a service dog, the authorities should be called. Then… see step 1. It’s actually very simple.

What can you do?

Representative Antone says his bill is not anti-dog. I think the audience will feel differently. If you live in Florida or know people who live in Florida, please send them a link to this article and encourage them to contact their state representatives.

You can also get educated on the differences between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals. Spoiler alert: The only animals allowed inside the restaurants are service animals.

And, if you passed your pet off as a service animal, stop it. You’re ruining things for everyone.

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