If it seems like there are more service dogs than ever before accompanying their owners into coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants, it’s because there are.
A 2015 study at the University of California, Davis found number of assistance dogs registered by animal control facilities in California has increased by 1,000 percent between 2002-12.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that service animals are allowed to accompany their owner anywhere that the public is normally allowed to go.
But what exactly is a service dog?
Over the years, dogs have been filling a growing number of jobs supporting people with various disabilities, both visible and invisible.
John Anthony, a cynologist and the director of training at Redemption Road K9, a working dog company, has studied dog emotion and cognition, as well as animal behavior, and says a dog can be trained to do almost anything.
Whether it’s sniffing out allergens, alerting a diabetic to changes in their blood sugar, calming someone with autism or anxiety, or guiding the blind or deaf, service dogs are trained to complete specific tasks according to their owner’s needs.
Dogs can also help alleviate symptoms of emotional or mental distress. Through companionship and affection, dogs can support those with mental disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorders, according to Dr. Kathy Peters, a local vet.
“What most don’t know is that there’s a difference — and it’s a big one,” Peters said.
Emotional support animals (ESA) and therapy dogs do not receive the same protection under the ADA and therefore are not considered service dogs.
The ADA limits the definition of a “service animal” to dogs that are trained to “do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act also states that “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
“This means that a dog that is trained to calm someone suffering from an anxiety attack is considered a service dog, while a dog whose mere presence calms a person is not,” Peters said. “The bottom line is that if the dog has been professionally trained to assist its owner, it’s a service dog.”
Deputy Kevin Duxbury of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says he has often responded to calls concerning whether ESA have the same rights as service dogs.
“The fact is that they don’t,” Duxbury said. “It’s something you see around town quite a lot, and the difference is that service animals have extensive training and costs thousands of dollars while comfort animals are classified as pets.”
Tanya Yarbrough, a dog trainer and the owner of Kazzi Dog Training, says the amount of training required for a service dog is tremendous. It takes at least 18 months to properly train a dog obedience and socialization while also preparing them for the numerous distractions they will face, Yarbrough said.
Whether it’s someone who legitimately has an ESA or someone who pretends their pet is a service dog so they can bring them everywhere, both can cause damage and harm to service dogs and their reputation.
Is it really illegal?
Laws are changing nationwide to combat the growing number of “fake” service dogs, but they have yet to change in California. In fact, they’ve been the same since 1995.
Penal Code 365.7 states that those pretending to be the owner of a service dog is a criminal misdemeanor with a penalty of up to $1,000 or six months in jail.
At the beginning of the year, Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, introduced a bill that would provide even more protection for service dogs.
Assembly Bill 169 would ensure that any harm done to a service dog would result in restitution payments and a criminal misdemeanor, regardless of whether the dog is on duty or not during the incident. If passed, the bill states that the convicted party could be liable to payments up to $10,000 to the owner of the service dog along with up to a year in county jail.
What’s the harm?
Acquiring a service-dog vest is simple. They can be bought on Amazon or at a pet shop, and because the ADA does not require any registration, licensing or documentation of service animals, it’s hard to know for sure if the dog is actually a service dog.
“People can buy these fake certificates online and show them as “proof” that their animal is a service animal,” said Julie Jones, the owner of service dog Bumble Bee. “It causes uneducated employees who don’t know the laws to think that a certificate is required for anyone with a service dog, and because I don’t have one, I’ve been turned away.”
Bumble Bee, a 5-year-old Cane Corso, is a trained service dog who is able to retrieve medication, do deep-pressure therapy during panic attacks and calmly block people from getting too close to Jones while she’s having an attack.
Jones says she and Bumble Bee have been denied access to numerous places.
“They either weren’t sure if it was okay to allow us or they didn’t want to allow us due to previous experiences they’ve had with poorly behaved “service” dogs,” Jones said. “I’ve also been denied access before due to my dog’s breed, size and intimidating appearance even though any breed of dog can be a service dog if they have the right temperament, drive to work and training.”
Rambo, a Chihuahua, Rat Terrier mix who had been trained to sniff out gluten for Yarbrough’s celiac disease, has also been denied access because of his size.
“They don’t even ask anymore, they just assume that you’re lying,” Yarbrough said. “It was only after the security guard saw my dog in a down stay next to sliding glass doors that kept opening and closing — and she didn’t move — that he realized that she was a service dog.”
Just hours after getting his new service dog Lazarus, a purebred West German Shepherd, Anthony was also faced with a public access challenge at a grocery store. He says he was accused of lying about why he had the dog with him in the store.
“He flat-out called me a liar and not only kicked me out of the store, but called the police and had them write me and Lazarus a ticket for trespassing,” Anthony said. “The dog hadn’t made a peep the entire time. She was quiet and attentive as officer after officer showed up.”
Anthony says he almost returned the dog, but decided to keep her and vowed to learn everything he could about service dogs so that would never happen to him again and so that he could help other people like him who just wanted help living a normal life.
There are rules for a reason and when it comes to service dogs, those rules are in place not only to protect the humans, but also the dogs.
“I’ve seen so many aggressive, out of control, freaked out dogs trying to be passed as service dogs,” Yarbrough said. “It’s cruel to take an untrained animal who is unable to handle the distractions of urban life and put them in a store where they are being set up to fail.”
Although Yarbrough believes that most people love their dogs, and their intent isn’t malicious or meant to be hurtful, she says that it doesn’t help the acceptance of legitimate service dogs.
“The people who own businesses and are in charge of making sure everyone is safe are forced to question the dogs legitimacy, which put the people with disabilities under more stress,” Yarbrough said. “This does not help their condition at all and is an extra stress that they don’t need to have.”