GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 8, 2013

Don't fake it with Fido

Falsely claiming pet as service animal could cost you

Senior Lookout
Anne Springer

---- — You love your dog.

Wouldn’t it be nice, when traveling, to take him right on the airplane instead of putting him in a crate in the cargo hold? Or, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to take him anywhere you want, and rent any apartment you want, without worrying that someone will tell you he’s not welcome?

A lot of people feel the same way. The problem is that they may be trying to accomplish those things by breaking federal law, and there are some questionable companies making it all too easy for them to do so.

If you think having a service dog is as easy as buying a service dog certification card and vest, beware! According to Service Dog Central (http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/), a community of service dog partners and trainers, “There are criminal penalties for falsely claiming a pet as a service animal. These penalties can range from a small fine, to one over $1,000 or a few days in jail up to a year in jail, depending on how the offense is committed and where. In some cases, the dog is confiscated and the owner may have a lengthy court battle to get the dog back.”

Legitimately disabled people who are paired with a service dog, whether they trained the dog (not many people have the skill to train a dog to do complex tasks that are sometimes required of these dogs, but it is not illegal for a dog to be owner-trained), or whether the dog was professionally trained, are feeling the heat from business proprietors and others who are now routinely confronted with pet dogs that aren’t really service dogs. This is unfair to disabled individuals with real assistance animals, and is largely due to the number of pets that are causing disruption to those businesses because they really don’t have the high level of training necessary for service dog work.

While it’s frustrating for businesses who think that a person might be trying to pass a pet off as a service dog, it’s important to realize that just because a person doesn’t look disabled they still might be, and they should still observe the law when asking if a dog is a service animal.

Aside from fines, or the possibility of having a pet confiscated, people should understand that such fraud is becoming a nuisance and threat to legitimately disabled people who need a service animal.

If you are tempted to “certify” your dog over the Internet (service dogs are not required to be registered or certified), or to get a service vest for your pet, don’t do it! A vest does not make your dog a service dog. If you are not disabled, or your dog is not individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate a real disability, you are violating the law if you say he’s a service animal.

If you are involved in a legal dispute over whether your dog is a service dog or not, you may be required to provide proof in court, so it is prudent not to try to fake it with Fido.

The most important reason not to do it, though, is to preserve the ability of legitimately disabled individuals to live as independently as they can with the help of a real service dog.

Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.