Did you know that in a matter of minutes and for less than $100, anyone can register a dog online as a service or emotional support animal? No one will even verify if it’s legitimate.
The pros for the dog owners are that they can skip the fees charged for keeping a dog in a rented home, and enjoy all the perks of having a service animal. These include visiting most restaurants with their dog and taking their on almost any airline.
There are no cons for the devious dog owner, but there are many cons for those who really need animals to maintain their health and welfare.
The laws are so vague and loose that they are prone to abuse.
Falsely registered service dogs on the rise
More than 2,400 emotional-support animals were approved in 2011 by the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial business that sells certificates, vests, and badges for service animals. Two years later, the business registered 11,000 animals.
Minimal regulation of service dogs
There is no government agency that monitors this business, and there is no official certification or licensing process set. The registry merely asks an applicant to check a box indicating whether the dog, or other pet is a therapy animal, emotional support animal, or service animal.
Then, applicants must simply mark another box to tell whether the dog can heel on a leash, come when called, not show any signs of aggression, and sit and lie down on command.
These service dog vests and certificates can also be purchased online for a mere $25.
One reason pet owners can get away with this abuse is the minimal screening required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act defines a service dog as one “individually trained” to “perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”
The ADA website states that the animal’s tasks must be directly related to the owner’s disability and only two questions are posed: Is the animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Emotional support dog’s legislation applies in the home
Emotional support dogs are covered by different legislation – the Fair Housing Act. These special dogs are defined as animals that alleviate symptoms of a person’s illness.
Landlords must make reasonable accommodation to let a handler with disabilities keep an emotional support dog— even when a landlord’s policy explicitly disallows pets. All a tenant needs is a letter from a doctor or other health professional. Under the act, the landlord cannot ask an applicant or tenant to give access to any medical records.
According to Julie Brinkhoff, the associate director of the Great Plains ADA Center, the emotional disability is not always evident to others. She also mentioned that from the technical assistance calls that her ADA Center receives, a lot of people—both tenants with disabilities and landlords— do not know the guidelines in regard to requesting a service/emotional support animal in a housing situation.
“Under the Fair Housing Act, a person could have a small dog whose presence relieves the symptom of depression as an emotional support animal in their apartment, but under the ADA, which covers public places, the dog would not be considered a service animal,” she said.
Brinkhoff also said that the ADA Center is currently unaware of the extent of the abuse, but they know that it is happening.
Christie Hunter has witnessed attempts to abuse existing policies in Columbia.
She runs Campus View Apartments where the pet deposit is $300, and monthly rent increases by $30.
“I had one experience at another complex of an illegal tenant who claimed a service animal, and for that reason we could not fine them for the illegal pet,” Hunter said.
Amy Robinson has experienced how easy it is. She said she was able to sign up her 4-month old Shih-Poo in just 15 minutes.
She visitedthe National Service Animal Registry website where she typed simple answers to questions about type of dog, age, and name. And after paying a $79 fee, she was sent two documents declaring Beau an emotional support dog. She was also sent two pocket-sized cards to easily carry around.
The apartment complex she lives in required a form filled out by a doctor. But since Robinson suffers from anxiety and depression, getting consent from her doctor was not hard.
She said she was able to “register” Beau before she even picked him up from the breeder. She even used a photograph of the puppy as proof. Beau follows her into stores, supermarkets and restaurants. She can also showa laminated card that says “NSAR Certified” with the Beau’s name and information about emotional service dogs on the back in case she gets questioned. But despite that, Robinson said she chose not to buy a vest for Beau.
“Petting a rabbit might make someone feel safe, but that is not a service animal,” said TerriAnn Tucker-Warhoverof Puppies with Purpose, an organization that trains service dogs.
“It is less of a loophole and more of a confusion, and these companies prey on the confusion,” she said. “There is no law that says they can’t, and there needs to be”
Training a service dog normally costs anywhere from $22,000 to $30,000, contrary to the $100 fee needed to register an emotional support dog.
Those with true needs suffer
Barbara Willis, director of the career services department at the Missouri School of Journalism knows what it is like to truly depend on the training of her service dog. Willis gets extreme migraines as the result of a car accident. Jeb, her service dog, first sniffs her head and then licks her ear if the sniffing doesn’t get her attention, to alert her to an imminent migraine. According to her, she almost became a recluse for fear of another migraine striking without warning.
“I don’t know an owner that doesn’t get emotional support from their dog. But that isn’t the same as what a service dog does for people with a real need,” she said.
Willis has noticed increased scrutiny on airlines because of the false certification of some “service dogs.”
“Airlines have become more expensive because airlines now require up-to-date records for the service dog and a prescription from a doctor,” she said. “It can be expensive to provide the necessary documentation.”
On the Delta Airlines’ website, the requirements for flying with a service animal or an emotional support animalare specified. Both types are welcome as long as owners can provide documentation less than a year old and signed by a mental health professional, to verify any health-related-disability.
Missouri University does not require students to officially inform the school that they are bringing a support animal on campus. Barbara Hammer said she is sure that students have taken advantage of the blurred lines.
Hammer said that if they discover that an animal is not a real service animal or emotional support animal, they willtell the student that the pet cannot be allowed on campus. If the animal is clearly not serving in either capacity, then the animal is considered a pet and according to MU’s pet policy, they are not allowed on campus or in residence halls.
“Emotional support animals are fine in homes, but not OK on campus. You are not justified bringing it anywhere with you,” Hammer said.
Compliance efforts are underway
There are some steps being taken to help stop –or at least lessen – abuse of the system.
Canine Companions for Independence started a petition in 2013 and submitted it with more than 17,500 signatures to the Department of Justice. The petitionasks for a foolproof method of registration and authority for sales of identification vests and badges.
According to Hammer, she is aware of the problem but is still mindful of students who really need service-dog companions.
She said they are doing their best to educate the campus and work with colleagues to make sure that students with service animals do not experience discrimination, as well as ensure that the animals brought to campus are legitimate service animals or emotional support animals.
“It is challenging, and I don’t think any of us would deny that it’s complicated and a gray area,” she said. “I also wouldn’t want to see laws make it harder for people who really need these animals, because service dogs perform such an important duty.”
Images: Canine Companions for Independence/Facebook