Fake service animals: a growing problem nationwide

Working Pomeranian service dog. This little working dog could alert her diabetic owner and let her know if her blood sugar was too low/high.

Nicole Stone/Assistant News Director

There has been an increase in fake service dogs and the states, including Florida, have begun to crack down on them – for good reason, too, according to the access consultant manager for the University’s Disability Resource Center, as service animals are “important tools” for people who want to live a more independent life.

Impersonating a service animal is illegal, according to Stephen Loynaz, the DRC’s access consultant manager, but it’s difficult to discern whether an animal is a service animal – especially if it’s a particularly well behaved dog. Service animal vests, identification tags and registration are not required by Florida law, but some service animal owners choose to vest them in order to avoid confrontation. The vests are purchasable online, however, making them accessible to the general public and to those willing to impersonate a service animal to bring their pets and Emotional Support Animals into public spaces.

But these animals, he said, do not qualify as service animals.

Service animals are a dog of any breed or a miniature horse trained to do a specific task to support and facilitate independence for an individual such as opening doors, calming an individual with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or alerting the individual about a potential seizure, among many other tasks. They must be permitted in any public space. Service animals in training are also protected and treated as service animals by Florida law.

ESAs, on the other hand, are “comfort” animals that primarily give their owner emotional support and are not medically necessary or trained to do a task. ESAs are allowed in student housing and the immediate area around the building so the animal may relieve itself and exercise.

“ESAs are just not trained to the level of a service animal and we have seen a lot of students carrying their ESAs on campus,” Loynaz said.

Charisse Mellison/PantherNOW

Professors, he said, are instructed to wait until probable cause arises to ensure that the animal in their classroom is a service animal. The primary indicator, Loynaz said, would be the animal’s behavior.

“If you see that the dog is just laying there, waiting to be told to do something or be triggered to do something, then most likely it’s a service animal because it’s behaving like a service animal… if you see a dog – with or without the vest – that’s playing with the students, jumping around, barking, panting, just acting like a playful dog, then that’s probable cause,” he said.

If it’s suspected that an animal is not a service animal, Loynaz suggests students turn to a faculty or staff member or notify the DRC.

Faculty and staff are trained to ask two questions which are covered under the American with Disabilities Act. The first is purely an objective, yes or no question: Is this animal a medical necessity? The second, Loynaz said, is more subjective: what task is this animal trained to do? A person, he said, can never request a demonstration of the animal performing the task for proof, documentation, or inquire about the person’s disability.

“It’s a very sensitive topic. You don’t want to go into it with too much hubris just because you know the two questions you’re allowed to ask and you’ve done a little bit of homework – you don’t want to just jump into that type of conversation.” Loynaz said.

The University would also be liable for fines and penalties if it asked a service animal to leave “for the wrong reasons,” he said.

“It’s a very big deal and we take it very seriously. If it’s something very egregious, like if the animal is destroying property or biting a student or trying to bite a student, then yes, you don’t have to check in with us,” Loynaz said. “A dog that is trying to bite a student or getting into a fight with another dog is a danger to health and safety.”

It’s also a misdemeanor to knowingly interfere with or allow your own dog to interfere with a service animal, both of which are punishable by imprisonment and fines, according to a 2016 publication by Rebecca F. Wisch under Michigan State University College of Law in which Wisch details the criminal interference and accommodation of service animals laws for all 50 states.

Service animals range in price from $7,000 to $30,000 and are not covered under Medicare, Medicaid or any private insurance. While many organizations exist to make service animals more financially accessible, there are long waiting lists to obtain one, according to https://www.disability-benefits-help.org/.

For the student’s well-being, it’s critical that the service animal remains undistracted, but the presence of an untrained ESA in a classroom has prevented a student’s service dog from warning its owner in the past, according to Loynaz.

“We have had issues on campus where students brought an ESA into the classroom… It was a relatively well-behaved dog, so it didn’t give that reasonable doubt to have to ask: ‘Is that a service animal?’” Loynaz said. “But when a service animal came into the room, the untrained ESA wanted to play with the service animal and distracted the service animal to the extent where the student was not able to rely on it to detect that there was an allergen in the room, so she [the student] started experiencing her reaction to the allergen because the service animal was being distracted by the ESA.”

Another student has also tried to feed someone else’s service animal under the suspicion that the dog was being neglected, Loynaz said, but whenever incidents occur, the center uses them as “teachable moments” to help inform others about the proper protocol when around service animals.

Additionally, under the ADA, students must not be restricted to housing arrangements based on their dependence on a service animal.

Housing is currently home to approximately 60 animals, only 10 of which are service dogs, according to Loynaz. This number, however, is not representative of the total number of service animals on campus as service animals are not required by Florida law to wear any sort of identifying tags or vests nor are they required to be registered with the DRC. The only thing that is required of a service animal in a public space is that it be on a leash and under control. Registration with the DRC is only necessary if the student plans to live on campus.

The DRC also provides students with informational pamphlets detailing some guidelines when it comes to being in the same vicinity of a service animal. Trying to pet, feed or take control of the animal’s leash, as well as making loud noises, are all etiquette breeches.

“The same way you wouldn’t go out and touch somebody else, you shouldn’t touch their service animal. You should consider it as an extension of the student,” Loynaz said. “You should just respectfully acknowledge that the animal is there. Typically, a service animal fades into the background. When the student is sitting in class, the service animal will lie down at the feet or sit at the feet, depending on how it’s trained. Often times, you’ll forget that the animal is there – unless the animal is triggered by something…”

For those interested, the University’s stance on ESAs and service animals on campus, published on Wednesday, Oct. 18, by Amanda Niguidula, director of the DRC, can be found online at https://policies.fiu.edu/.

“I feel that service animals are a very important tool to a lot of people so that they are able to live more independent lives. The care and understanding of what the laws are there for should be respected and looked after as much as possible because… we want to make sure that the animals remain accessible… anything we can do to create awareness and stop the abuse of the option so that the right people can use these animals without having to fear not being able to, we’ll support,” he said.


Image retrieved from Flickr.

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