Turtle Watch noticing fake service dogs
More and more people are walking their dogs on the beach pretending that their pets are service animals, and the dogs pose a threat to nesting shorebirds and sea turtles, according to Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring Director Suzi Fox.
Fox is working with local authorities and experts to determine how to handle encounters with people who appear to have fake service dogs on the beach, including Orlando-based Service Dogs of Florida.
Guide dogs for the blind may be fairly recognizable, but other service dog owners have less obvious disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, seizures, impaired hearing or impaired mobility that dogs assist with, making it easier for unscrupulous people to pass their pets off as service dogs, according to Ken Lyons, director of Service Dogs of Florida.
A dog’s uniform, or service vest, may be counterfeit, and no state or federal certification is required for service animals, so certificates are hard to verify, Lyons said. He added that a good way to determine if a dog is a real service animal is to observe its behavior – service animals are calm, well-trained and respond to the commands of their owners.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows dogs on beaches or anywhere else they are normally prohibited only if they are guide dogs or service dogs, and only if they are doing their job, not playing fetch or romping in the surf, he said.
The people with them have to be either disabled or trainers to be allowed on a beach, he added.
Two other classifications of dogs are allowed only in certain places, not including beaches, he said. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are allowed under housing and airlines guidelines, and therapy dogs are allowed in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and libraries.
People with authority over who is on the beach, such as police or lifeguards, can ask two questions under the ADA: “Is this a service dog due to a disability?” and “What task does it perform?” Lyons said.
“If they can’t give a good answer they can be asked to leave,” he said.
“Southeastern Guide Dogs graduates, myself included, rely on the access rights of our dogs to go about our lives,” Susan Wilburn, director of Admissions and Graduate Services at Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, wrote in a prepared statement.
“While it may be obvious when a guide dog is doing its job of getting us safely from point A to point B, there are others whose service dogs' work may be less obvious. They too rely on the access rights granted by the ADA to live unencumbered.
"When individuals abuse this right by trying to pass off their personal/pet dogs as service dogs, it makes it harder for the general public to recognize a service dog when faced with one.
"I can understand someone wanting to have the constant companionship of their dog, but while you may want to have your dog with you, I need to have my dog there, as do all the other people who share their lives with a service dog.”
A group called Canine Companions for Independence is collecting signatures on a petition to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding fines for people with fake service dogs caught anywhere that dogs aren’t allowed and requesting restrictions on unauthorized online sales of service dog products.