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Fake Fidos blur the lines for service dogs

New Hampshire Sunday News

November 11. 2017 11:22PM

Elle Shaheen of Portsmouth and her service dog Coach are living on campus at Harvard University this year. Coach alerts the teen, who is diabetic, to dangerous changes in her blood sugar level. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

It seems like wherever you go, you see dogs of all sizes wearing vests or collars designating them as "service animals."

And a quick online search turns up plenty of companies selling those very vests, ID cards and certificates, or purporting to "register" service or "emotional support" animals to anyone willing to pay.

So how can you tell which is an actual service dog and which is fake?

"It's complicated," says Jeff Dickinson, advocacy director for Granite State Independent Living in Concord.

One problem, he said, is confusion over federal laws governing public access.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals anywhere customers are allowed to go.

The N.H. Governor's Commission on Disability notes that "emotional support dogs" (ESAs) and therapy dogs do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. But ESAs are protected under federal housing and air travel laws.

Dickinson has a form of muscular dystrophy, uses a wheelchair, and relies on a service dog named Aspen, a golden retriever trained by Assistance Canine Training Services in North Conway.

Aspen can open doors, turn on lights and pick up items for Dickinson. "Anything, from keys to the remote control for the TV, even a piece of paper she can do, and usually she doesn't wrinkle it up too badly," he said.

But the growing number of people misrepresenting their pets as assistance dogs is making it more difficult for those who depend on real service dogs, he said.

There have been cases of untrained animals attacking service dogs or otherwise behaving badly, he said. "They don't have all that training, so when they're in public, they act like a lot of folks would expect their pet dog to act," he said.

And he worries that "makes it harder for us who have service dogs to access places."

Dickinson said many businesses don't realize the ADA gives them the right to refuse to allow any dog that's acting badly - barking or growling, for instance - inside.

According to the ADA, a service dog is a dog that has been individually trained to provide assistance to a person living with a disability. The tasks have to be directly related to the disability.

There is no universal certification or registration for service dogs. And the ADA allows someone to train his own service dog.

But as more people depend on animals for comfort or emotional support, the lines have blurred.

NH trying to tackle the issue

Some states are cracking down on those who misrepresent themselves and their dogs to get them on planes or into public places.

New Hampshire already has such a law. RSA 167-D:8 makes it unlawful "for a person to fit an animal with a collar, leash, vest, sign or harness of the type that represents that the animal is a service animal ... if in fact said animal is not a service animal." It's also illegal for someone "to impersonate, by word or action, a person with a disability for the purpose of receiving service dog accommodations or service animal accessories such as a collar, leash, vest, sign, harness or service animal tag. ..."

Just how the law could be enforced, however, is unclear.

Under the ADA, when it's not obvious what service a dog provides, only two questions can be asked:

1) Is the dog required because of a disability? (You can't ask what the disability is.)

2) And what work or task is the dog trained to perform?

Rep. John Janigian, R-Salem, put in a Legislative Service Request for the upcoming session that he said tried to "minimize the number of people who are pretending to have a service dog."

State law already exempts licensing fees for service dogs. Janigian's idea was for town clerks to issue a certificate when someone registers a service dog. Store managers or other business owners could ask to see that certificate before allowing an animal inside.

Janigian proposed the bill after a store manager told him that more and more people are bringing animals into his grocery store. And he's seen the same in his own business as a landlord. "I've just had a lot more people saying they have a service dog," he said.

But after some advocates said the bill would violate the ADA, he withdrew the LSR.

Stefany Shaheen of Portsmouth wrote about her diabetic daughter and her service dog in her 2015 book "Elle & Coach."

Coach, who is trained to detect dangerous changes in Elle's blood sugar levels, has been a part of the family for five years. Elle is now a freshman at Harvard, where Coach has become a popular fellow on campus.

Coach, a handsome yellow Lab, might look like a family pet, Shaheen said. But he underwent 2,000 hours of training at Kansas-based Canine Assistance, Rehabilitation, Education and Services, even before he and Elle trained together.

The pair also had to pass a "public access test" before they were licensed by CARES as a "certified assistance dog team."

Shaheen said she has had to explain the service animal laws to hotel clerks, but she's never had a problem traveling with Coach on airplanes. "In our case, because he is a service dog and he's licensed and covered by the ADA, we feel confident he'll get to be where he needs to be," she said.

But, she said, "We have noticed in the last year or so that if we're in a public setting, more people in that public setting are skeptical ... or assume he can't be a real service dog."

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to transport service dogs and emotional support animals, according to Todd Burke from the industry group Airlines for America.

Burke said airlines "trust our passengers are honest in communicating their need for service animal assistance."

But the DOT also requires a passenger traveling with an ESA to provide documentation from a licensed mental health professional. Burke encouraged customers to check with their airlines before flying.

One family's experience

Andrea Williams' 15-year-old daughter Paxton depends on JoJo, her Lab/golden retriever mix, to assist her with physical tasks. They got JoJo from Canine Companions for Independence, which provided the training to turn JoJo, Paxton and her mom into a team.

Paxton, a freshman at Goffstown High School, has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy and uses a walker for mobility, Williams said.

JoJo can open doors and drawers for Paxton using "tug straps." She turns lights on and off and carries items and packages for her in stores. "It gives Paxton that sense of security, that level of independence that she needs," Williams said.

Williams even taught JoJo to pick up Paxton's clothes and drop them in a laundry chute. "I have four children, and none of them do laundry, but the dog does," she said. "She's amazing."

The dog also has a calming effect on her daughter during medical procedures, she said.

Williams said she finds it "very upsetting" that some people are misrepresenting their pets as service dogs. When store clerks question whether JoJo is a real service dog, she tells them that the proof is in how the dog acts.

"If they're legitimate, then you don't have to explain yourself, because the dog's behavior does it."

So, other than everyone being honest, what's the fix?

Dickinson, of Granite State Independent Living, said there has to be a balance.

"We want to create something that is enforceable so that if somebody has a fake service dog, there are ways to prevent that and take action," he said. "But by the same token, we also have to balance that against not making the law so onerous that it removes the choice of being able to train your own service dog."

"So far I haven't come up with the perfect solution to that," he admitted.

Janigian said he still thinks lawmakers should address the issue.

"Now we're looking at everyone who's bringing a dog somewhere, saying, 'Are they faking it?'" he said. "I don't think it's fair to the people who are really disabled."

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