It’s no secret that I’m appalled by people who claim their pets are service animals. Of course, I understand the desire to take our pets with us everywhere. And yes, compared to other places in the world, the limited access our pets have is frustrating. However, it is reprehensible to take measures that make life difficult for people who need service animals. And now the effects of fake service dogs might bite us all.
An epidemic of fake service dogs
In response to a growing trend, we launched GoPetFriendly.com in 2009. People viewed their pets differently—less like livestock and more like family. There was a desire to include pets in our lives, whether it was brunch with friends or a cross-country road trip. We were excited about this movement and hoped our website would help people discover more things to do together.
Over the years, the market has responded to the needs of pet lovers. The number of hotels that welcome pets has increased dramatically. Restaurants, cafes and bars have outdoor seating areas where pets were allowed. And all kinds of attractions, from beaches to museums, are pet-friendly. Even the national parks have started a BARK ranger program!
READ MORE ⇒ The most animal-friendly national parks in the USA
Of course, not everyone was happy with the pace of change. They want to take their pets anywhere, without restriction, all the time. And the morally disadvantaged among them portray their pets as fake service dogs, ignoring the fact that their actions lead people to question the legitimacy of real service animals.
Unfortunately, the problem is widespread. Airlines have been forced to tighten their requirements for service animals and emotional support animals, and many states have responded by passing additional legislation.
States are responding by passing stricter 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 the problem, states have enacted their own laws that exceed the federal counterfeit service dog law penalties. Currently, 31 states Prohibit the fraudulent portrayal of a pet as a service animal. Five other states have laws criminalizing some service animal fraud. And the problem of fake service dogs still remains.
Florida’s proposed law 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 carries a $500 fine and up to 60 days in prison. But Orlando State Rep. Bruce Antone doesn’t think that’s enough.
“I see that as a growing problem,” Antone said. “You just see people pushing or pushing the boundaries of anything. With the pets, there’s an explosion of people taking their pets into stores and restaurants.”
Antone knows the issue of pets in restaurants has been raised before, but he feels something stronger is needed.
“I just have a feeling that if we don’t put in a workaround now, it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “Not everyone understands what the law is.”
The solution that Antone proposes is set out House bill 243. This measure would still allow restaurants to welcome pets in their outdoor seating areas, but it would make it illegal to allow non-service animals into retail outlets, restaurants, bars, lounges or “any other similar commercial establishment where there is a the public gathered”.
The bill includes the following recommended penalties for violating the proposed law:
(a) A warning for the first offence.
(b) A $100 fine for the second offense.
(c) Thirty hours of community service for an organization serving persons with disabilities, or for any other entity or organization at the discretion of the court, to be performed within 6 months for the third and subsequent offenses.
Antone believes his bill has a 60 percent chance of passing during the 2020 session of Congress.
The potential impact of this bill
I very much agree with Rep. Antone’s concerns about fake service animals. And I agree that people should obey laws that ban pets in restaurants. However, his proposal does a serious injustice to responsible pet owners. If passed, this law would create significant new barriers for pet owners residing in Florida and for those considering it as a travel destination.
By banning pets in “retail stores,” Antone’s bill would no longer allow pet owners to shop at boutiques, pet stores, indoor malls, and homeware, household supplies, and other stores that currently allow pets.
In addition, taprooms, cafes, winery tasting rooms, lounges and bars would also be locked down. Certainly we can imagine “business venues where the public congregates” that include hotel lobbies and museums. And there will be no hope for the creative expansion of pet-friendly destinations like this Dog-friendly cinema which recently opened in Plano, Texas.
Aside from driving tourists away and provoking local residents, I worry that Antone’s bill could have worse consequences. By banning pets in places that have historically chosen to welcome them, more people may feel compelled to misrepresent their pets. And given the relatively inconsequential penalties proposed, it’s foreseeable that this legislation could actually lead to more fake service dogs.
For those who would comply with the new bans, banning them indoors could result in more pets being left in cars. This could be a life-threatening situation in a warm, sunny climate like Florida.
READ MORE ⇒ Is it illegal to leave pets alone in the car?
What is the solution?
The proposed Florida bill has broader implications. Already 36 states have enacted laws against fake service dogs. If this law is passed, it could become a model for the rest of the country and the strides we’ve made to include pets in our lives would fizzle out.
Of course I hope that doesn’t happen. So, how do I think Florida should deal with fake service dogs?
Step 1: Enforce applicable laws
First, Florida should enforce the law that they already have on the books. The possibility of being hit with a $500 fine and sixty days in jail is enough to get the attention of anyone considering misrepresenting their pet.
Step 2: Empower business owners
Across the country, we’re seeing establishments adopting more inclusive pet policies. Instead of enacting more restrictive laws, why not encourage and empower these business owners to be the first line of defense against fake service dogs?!
Many owners and managers are unaware of their rights when it comes to service animals. And spotting a service dog might not be obvious. Service animals can help people with a variety of conditions, including autism, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. So when determining whether a person is being honest with their service dog, business owners or employees can ask two questions: Is that a service animal? and What service is it trained for?
Answers to these questions can be a quick way to eliminate scammers, as reputable handlers should have no trouble detailing the services their pet is providing. It’s possible that some brazen liars will also give sensible 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 a service dog behaves in a way that poses a risk to the health or safety of others, such as B. urinating or defecation in the house or threatening or biting other guests, and is not under the disabled guest’s control, he may be denied service.
Anytime a business owner has a problem with a service dog or suspects that a person is misrepresenting their pet as a service dog, authorities should be called. Then… see step 1. It’s actually quite simple.
What can you do?
Rep. Antone says his bill isn’t anti-dogs. I think the public will feel differently. If you live in Florida or know people who live there, please send them a link to this article and encourage them to contact their state representatives.
You can also educate yourself on the differences between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals. Spoiler Alert: The only ones allowed in restaurants are service animals.
And if you pass off your pet as a service animal, stop. You ruin things for everyone.
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