Service animals are known by different names that reflect the types of work they perform. Most people have seen or heard about dogs for the blind, commonly referred to as “Seeing Eye Dogs” or “Guide Dogs.” Less common are hearing and signal dogs. They alert a hearing-impaired person to a variety of sounds, such as a door bell, usually by going back and forth between their owner and the source of the sound. More generally, assistance dogs perform a wide variety of chores, such as picking up objects, pulling wheelchairs, and alerting or protecting a person who is having a seizure.
There have been widespread abuses of the privileges given to service animals. As noted in the Federal Register, “Some individuals who are not individuals with disabilities have claimed, whether fraudulently or sincerely (albeit mistakenly), that their animals are service animals covered by the ADA, in order to gain access to hotels, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation.” (75 FR 56266.) Specifically, individuals have taken a number of questionable animals into restaurants, hospitals and other establishments, claiming that the animals were service animals. These included pigs, miniature horses, snakes and iguanas. (See, for example, Fake Service Dogs a Growing Problem as Pet Owners Flout Disability Rules.) There have been a number of instances in which vicious pit bulls have been described as “service animals” such as the cases involving Kali Katzenberg and Steven Woods (Animals24.7, “Service pit bull” who attacked three people & dog is re-impounded.)
Fake service dogs have disfigured at least six people and killed five since 2012. On January 30, 2012, a six-year-old boy was killed at Fort Campbell in Oak Grove, Tennessee, by a German Shepherd medical service dog. Three months later, on April 27, 2012, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan (age 1) was killed by his grandmother’s “therapy dog” in Henderson, Nevada. Six months after that, a three-month-old girl named Dixie Jennings was mauled to death in Yadkinville, North Carolina, by a Rottweiler which was being trained as a service dog. One year later, on October 24, 2014, another Rottweiler in training as a service dog killed Logan T Meyer (age 7) in Hustiford, Wisconsin. On May 24, 2015, a Rottweiler killed 26-year-old Anthony Wind in Rochester, New York; he suffered from seizures for years because of brain trauma, and the dog allegedly assisted him when he had those seizures. Prior to 2012, there were no previous disfiguring or fatal attacks by service dogs on record.
Another example of abuse pertains to so-called “therapy dogs.” While a service dog directly assists its handicapped owner by performing a task, a therapy dog in the hands of a non-handicapped owner merely provides emotional support or companionship. The federal rule, set forth below, specifically excludes “emotional support dogs” from the definition of “service animals.”
For good reason, it has been suggested that the Americans with Disabilities Act has become the “Pit Bull Pushers Act.” (Merritt Clifton, How the Americans with Disabilities Act has become the “Pit Bull Pushers Act.”)
Definition of “service animal”
“Service animal” is defined by federal law (75 FR 56266) as follows:
“[A]ny dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”
The federal definition is arguably under-inclusive. For example, a dog that alerts and/or attempts to revive a person having a seizure can be certified or licensed as a service dog in many jurisdictions, without specific training as long as the dog can be counted upon to do it. It has been estimated that 15% of seizure dogs naturally perform, with no training, alerts and other services for seizure victims (see http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/491).
See the discussion of criminal penalties in California based on fake service dogs: Shouse California Law Group, Service Dog Fraud in California, http://www.shouselaw.com/service-dog.html, accessed 8/19/2016.