Fake Service Dogs, Problem or Red Herring?

There’s a blog post over at The Bark’s website by JoAnna Lou entitled “Revisiting Fake Service Dogs” which is a follow up to an earlier post by the same author. Ms. Lou’s issue is with non-disabled people passing off their dogs as service animals, largely to bring them aboard airplanes. Service dogs fly in the cabin and can’t be put in cargo. As a guide dog handler who has flown hundreds of thousands of miles over the past 18 years, I want to weigh in on some of the contentions in Ms. Lou’s posts.

One of her assertions is that dog show people routinely cheat by passing off their pets as service dogs while traveling to dog related competitions. I have no doubt that people do this. As Ms. Lou correctly points out, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require people with disabilities to provide documentation for service animals when accessing public places. By way of analogy ask yourself what it would be like if, as a non-disabled individual, you had to produce your Passport every time you went into a grocery store or movie theater or restaurant, or wanted to board a bus. Clearly you’d find yourself without the documentation because you changed your handbag, left your briefcase on the desk, or forgot the Passport in the pocket of your other coat. The ADA is a Civil Rights law and not a “hall pass” to the bathroom in Junior High. 

I am getting ahead of myself. But the Civil Rights aspect of service dog travel is important. I was recently in Japan where I visited the Kansai Guide Dog training school. I learned there are not equivalent access guarantees for guide dog handlers in Japan. What this means is that blind people with professionally trained guide dogs can only travel to places that will admit them on sufferance. This is precisely what the ADA’s documentation clause is designed to avoid. Your disability doesn’t have to be “proved” if its invisible; you don’t need to show them a letter from your eye doctor proclaiming your vision loss; you don’t need to tell the professor how you got PTSD; you don’t need to show your service dog’s official license to get in the door. 

Not long ago I was denied access to a tony restaurant in New York City. The doorman and the night manager wanted me to “prove” that the yellow Labrador beside me, wearing a leather harness that says “Guiding Eyes” across the back strap, was really a service dog. We had a frank conversation and I told them they were violating the law. Later the owners apologized. They offered me a free dinner but I won’t go back. I did have an ID card from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in my wallet. But the doorman is not permitted to demand this and frankly he shouldn’t be permitted to demand this. Civll Rights are “rights” and they are not conditional on having the proper paper work. 

Ms. Lou believes that legions of people are cheating the system by pretending their tricked out pets are service dogs. But if you watch enough courtroom dramas on TV you will likely notice her evidence is what they call “heresay” on “Law & Order”–which means she’s getting her information second hand. Back in 2009 she wrote:

“The legitimacy and training of service dogs has come up a lot recently, and many of the cases do not have clear solutions. But what about when someone is consciously taking advantage of the privileges granted to service dogs?

With the USDAA Cynosport World Games coming up in Scottsdale, Ariz., I’ve been talking to many of the local competitors about how they’re traveling with their dogs. Some are caravanning in their RVs and others are reluctantly putting their pups in cargo. 

One of the more seasoned competitors mentioned that while she dutifully puts her dogs in cargo, she always sees fellow competitors passing their pups off as service dogs on the plane.”

I have no doubt that Ms. Lou’s source did in fact see dog show competitors bringing dogs on an airplane by asserting they were service dogs. But what I DO doubt, is the rhetorical device whereby a general truism is asserted based on limited evidence. Usually that limited evidence is framed as a leading question–one that’s designed to trigger strong emotions. One of the best ways to do this is by asserting that someone is cheating the rest of us honest folk. The device is almost always a fallacy. Ronald Reagan’s famous stump speech about “welfare queens” was entirely made up.   

Let’s slow down. Let’s breathe. 

Are non-disabled people passing themselves off as having disabilities. Yes. Just drive to your local pharmacy and try to find a handicapped parking space. Then hang around and watch the exceptionally fit college kid come out and hop in the car that’s hogging the reserved spot. This makes your blood boil. Mine too. One of my best friends is a wheelchair user. He struggles with this issue all the time. In general terms people like to cheat. They will use disability status as a means to an end just as they’ll pretend to be working for a charity or raising money for a youth group. As all veteran cheaters know, the best gambit involves stealing from kind people. Back in the very early days of American film making one of the most popular plots involved “fake” beggars who pretended to be blind. Those early movies were little morality plays and the villain always received his due. We know of course that even today there are beggars faking disabilities. What I mean to suggest is that this idea of falsifying disability is one that is both venerable and loaded with pathos–the Greek term for ungoverned emotion. Pathos will always cloud better judgment. Or as the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote: “People who live in houses in fog believe the whole world is covered in fog.” 

Once you imagine the world is filled with cheaters you will see cheaters everywhere. Still, emotions aside, is it possible that Ms. Lou’s “source” who saw people bringing dogs on a plane was actually seeing dog show competitors who had invisible disabilities? This is indeed possible. Ms. Lou’s source cannot know by default that the people she saw were cheaters. And perhaps they were. But its also possible some of them weren’t. In the arena of human rights I like to side with individual and collective dignity. I don’t  want people to be required to prove their disabilities just because there’s a lurking scofflaw around the corner. Let me be more specific: I fly at least twice a month. I am not seeing large numbers of dogs on planes. In fact, 99% of the time I’m the only one with a service dog on the flight.  The sheer numbers of flight attendants who tell me they’ve never seen a guide dog before is rather telling. In truth there are only about 10,000 active guide dog teams in the United States. Guide dog teams are a very very small minority group. 

While there are no requirements that a person with a disability must produce doggy documentation there is a subtext in the ADA which states rather clearly that a service dog can be denied access to a public space if its not under firm control. One needs to think about that. If a cheater did get on an airplane with a fake service dog, he or she could still be denied a seat if the dog wasn’t really a working dog. What I’m getting at here is that fakery or not, there are controls. Perhaps they are not perfect. A person pretending to have PTSD and pretending to have a trained service dog could indeed get on an airplane. But they wouldn’t stay long if the dog had no manners. And I for one wouldn’t want to humiliate a person who actually “has” PTSD. While I respect Ms. Lou’s umbrage that dog show people may be faking that they have disabilities I’m not at all convinced this is a real epidemic. Moreover, I believe that suspicions tendered toward people with invisible disabilities do a lot more harm than the occasional dog show cheater. I think perspective is crucial in all areas of public life. 

I also think that the Bark’s decision to use a photograph of a legitimate service dog alongside Ms. Lou’s latest post is unfortunate. 

I like “The Bark” and I have written for them on occasion. Still, when writing about disability and public access I expect more than pathos. Much more.