Service Animal or Pet? How to Ferret Out The Truth

Legitimate service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for their disabled handlers

Legitimate service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for their disabled handlers

Although I generally direct my tips to consumers, I’m going to change things up a bit and reach out to folks in customer service today. Lately there has been a lot of buzz about “fake” service animals, otherwise known as pets. And to be honest, the fakers really do a huge disservice to people who have legitimate service animals.

Unfortunately many shopkeepers, restaurant managers and hotel clerks are afraid to question the legitimacy of service animals, for fear of legal repercussions. I come from the camp that believes knowledge alleviates fear, so with that in mind, I’d like to share a few tips on how to differentiate service animals from pets.

First and foremost, if you doubt the legitimacy of a service animal, you are allowed to ask the customer two questions.

  1. Is the dog a service animal that is required because of your disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The answers you receive will determine the status of the animal in question.

If a customer says that the animal provides emotional support, comfort or safety, that should be a red flag. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), “The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”

That said, a person with depression may have a dog that reminds him to take his medicine, while a person with epilepsy may have a dog that detects the onset of a seizure.

But what if someone has a dog who calms them when they have an anxiety attack? Well, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog is trained to sense the onset of an anxiety attack and lessens the impact of it, it qualifies as a service animal; however if it merely provides comfort after the attack, it’s a pet.

Additionally, some state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places, so it’s a good idea to check your local regulations.

Service animals are also expected to behave appropriately. If for example, an animal is out of control or if it’s not housebroken, businesses may exclude that animal — service animal or not. And people in food service should remember that service animals are not allowed to be fed from the tables or sit in chairs. They are also not allowed in swimming pools (for health reasons), but they are allowed on pool decks.

And then there are the certificates, vests and patches. What if a customer offers one of those as proof that their dog is a service animal? Although certification isn’t required, many legitimate organizations provide vests and patches upon graduation. That said, there are also numerous organizations — card mills — that sell these items to anyone who wants to pay for them. The DOJ warns consumers that these items do not convey any rights under the ADA, and they are not proof that the animal is a service animal. If a customer offers them as proof, then go back to the two questions that you are allowed to ask.

The same holds true for people who have a doctor’s note. If they can’t correctly answer the two magic questions, then Fifi is a pet.

Generally speaking service animals also need to be leashed or tethered, however there are exceptions. For example, a person who has PTSD might have a dog that is trained to enter a space, go in and see if there are threats, then return and signal that it’s safe to enter.

Last but not least, feel free to give anyone the boot who shows up with a snake, ferret or even a cat. Under the ADA, only dogs are recognized as service animals. Keep in mind it can be any breed of a dog, but it has to be a dog.

For more information about service animal regulations and what you can and can’t do under the law, visit the DOJ FAQ page. It’s a great primer for employees, so print it out and have it available for reference.