When Nancy Stevens, who is blind, moved to Bend 10 years ago, restaurant owners would sometimes prevent her from bringing her guide dog inside. But these days, dogs can be found in offices, shops and even places like grocery stores.
Stevens notices a bigger canine presence in airports, and she knows the traveling pooches aren’t trained service dogs because she hears their nonstop barking. Once, Stevens overheard a woman admitting that she disguised her dog as a service animal with a special vest she bought online. Stevens confronted the pet owner, telling her that cheating wasn’t helpful to those who need access to public places with their dogs.
“It’s an earned privilege,” Stevens said. “And you earn it by having your dog properly trained.”
Pet owners who want to take their animals into public places have pushed the limits of laws meant to protect disabled people. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks related to the person’s disability, and it requires places of public accommodation to allow the dogs to accompany people with disabilities. But now, people who rely on service dogs fear a backlash from business owners tired of people bringing untrained dogs and so-called “emotional-support animals” into their stores.
“Service-animal people are offended and finding other people becoming more harsh, or not thinking as well of somebody who has a real service animal, because of this fraud by people with emotional support animals,” said David Favre, professor of animal and property law at Michigan State University College of Law.
Some businesses, including airlines, are starting to change their rules.
Stevens points out a Delta Air Lines’ rule that took effect March 1. People traveling with service dogs have to submit proof of vaccination 48 hours before the flight. And people traveling with emotional-support animals — which don’t do anything other than provide comfort — must fill out three forms: one with proof of vaccination, one certifying that the person has a mental health disability and one in which the owner certifies that its animal “has been trained to behave in a public setting and takes my direction upon command.”
The ADA protects service dogs’ access to businesses and other public places. Should anyone doubt a dog’s legitimacy, the only questions that can be asked are whether it is a service dog and what tasks it performs. There’s no central registry of service dogs, and while there are widely recognized training organizations, there’s no government standard for training. It’s obvious when Stevens’ dog, Abby, is guiding her, but the purpose of many service dogs isn’t clear until the situation calls for their help. So people who are deaf can walk in public knowing their dog will be as welcome as a seeing-eye dog and, because of the law, not have to disclose or answer questions about their disability.
Only service dogs — not emotional-support animals — are allowed in grocery stores, but it can be difficult for store personnel to weed out the impostors.
“We do see pets come into the store and, because of the law, we don’t ask many questions, unless there seems to be a problem, and at that, it’s very limited in what we can ask,” Lauren Johnson, CEO of Newport Avenue Market in Bend, wrote in an email.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture received 87 complaints last year about animals in grocery stores, and four of them were directed to the inspector who covers Central Oregon. The number of complaints has been level since 2015. Unless an animal happens to be present during a health-code inspection, the inspector is not likely to cite the store, said Stephanie Page, outgoing director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s food safety program.
While she hasn’t been denied access, Stevens said she is questioned more frequently in grocery stores, where she holds Abby by a leash rather than her harness.
“I’m concerned there’s going to be an overreaction sometime,” said Al DiLuzio, a Bend resident who is blind. He also resents Delta’s documentation requirement for service dogs because it was sparked by an incident involving an emotional-support animal. A lab mix that was sitting on its owner’s lap in the middle seat mauled the window-seat passenger in the face.
DiLuzio’s dog, Sable, weighs 75 pounds, but when he flies, he curls up under the seat and doesn’t come out until it’s time to get off the plane, he said.
Favre, the Michigan State law professor, thinks federal regulators contribute to the confusion about service dogs and emotional-support animals. While the ADA excludes emotional-support animals, the Department of Housing and Urban Development says landlords have an obligation, under the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act, to make reasonable accommodations for “any assistance animal, including an emotional-support animal.”
The problem, Favre believes, is that the agency has never gone through a rigorous, public rule-making process on emotional-support animals. Meanwhile, airlines operate under the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows emotional-support animals.
It’s easy to see how, after bypassing a no-pets policy and then taking an animal on a plane, people might think they are entitled to take a dog anywhere, Favre said.
Organizations such as the National Service Animal Registry help people turn their pets into emotional-support animals to make them seem more legitimate. “We’ll also show you how ESA registration can help you keep your dog, cat or other animal for free in a ‘no-pet’ apartment, house or condo,” the website says. “You can formalize your pet as an emotional-support animal by using our ESA registration process.”
The online registry, which also sells official-looking vests and patches, does not count toward Delta’s documentation requirement.
As the founder of a service-dog training organization that works with military veterans, Kristina Olson said she would never question a dog in a public place. “That’s discriminating against someone who feels like they really need their little buddy to be able to face the world,” she said. “Why would I take that away from them?”
An the daughter of a U.S. Army veteran and former Army wife, Olson started Central Oregon Battle Buddies in 2014 to combat the high rate of suicide among veterans. The small organization, based in Redmond, works with veterans experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A professional trainer works with the veterans, who typically use their own dogs, rather than buying them from breeders.
The goal is to meet the standards of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of assistance-dog training organizations. Those standards say dogs should be able to perform at least two tasks, Olson said. A dog could cover the owner’s back while he takes cash out of an ATM, reducing hyper-vigilance, she said, and it could block, which means putting a safe distance between the handler and the public.
Olson admits that not all dogs, or owners, make it through the two years of training it takes to meet the service-dog standard, which is voluntary. In those cases, the dog becomes an emotionalsupport animal, she said. They aren’t just pets, she said, because the owner’s need is certified by a doctor or mental health professional.
Nineteen states have passed laws against service-dog fraud. Those laws are nearly impossible to enforce, Favre said. But he doesn’t think the government should get involved in certifying service dogs.
“It seems like governmental overkill,” he said. “We had a system that worked on good faith and honesty. When that no longer works, it becomes very awkward for government to do it.”
Olson is also against government certification for service dogs, or trainers, because it would create a financial hardship for people with disabilities by making it impossible for them to do their own training.
Olson said she’s very aware of the public backlash against dogs in public places. Central Oregon Battle Buddies prepares its clients to deal with questions about their dogs. “If your dog is out of control, you may be asked to leave. That is the remedy,” she said.
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