Secret Service: Support animals—and their owners—have too many hoops to jump through
Service animals aren’t pets—they’re employees. People who benefit from SAs, whether for a physical disability or mental health, spend at least $3,000 to train them. Some wait nearly three years before receiving a trained SA. These animals offer assistance that cannot be replicated, so when the system is abused by people passing off fake SAs, it is detrimental to the owner and the animal.
There has been a growing occurrence in the U.S. of owners trying to pose their pets as service animals to gain the benefits that come with having a trained SA. For example, SAs are the only animals that are federally permitted to go into “no pets allowed” businesses.
In Missouri, anyone found using a fake service animal will be charged with a class C misdemeanor. The punishment is up to 15 days in jail and up to a $700 fine.
However, the law is hazy around how people can find out if a dog is a real SA. Business owners and employees are prohibited from asking people with SAs certain questions because it discriminates against people with disabilities or triggers anxiety.
“Legally, a business owner can only ask two questions,” says Chuck Klingsick, owner of Dog Training Elite. “‘Is that a service dog to help with your disability?’ And ‘what is one task that dog does to support your disability?’ They cannot ask any other question.”
The U.S. does not require an SA certification. This gives owners the option to train their animals at home, lessening the financial requirements that come with professional training. However, if an animal acts up in a public place due to poor training, the owner has the right to ask for the animal to be taken outside—not to ask the person to leave. The caregiver will also be financially responsible for any damages that their dog caused.
“If a person claims to have a service dog and that service dog is all over the map, there’s a good chance that dog has not been trained to be a service animal,” Klingsick says. “If a person claims they have a service dog and a service dog is paying very close attention to that person and being well behaved when that person sits down, the dog just kind of talks and gets out of the way—that’s a good indication they’ve been trained.”
There are an estimated 500,000 service animals working in the U.S. However, only about 70% of animals that go through the training will become certified. At Dog Training Elite KC, dogs can be trained for PTSD and Psychiatric needs, mobility and autism needs, or medical alerts. The training ranges from $3,795-$7,495 and requires 20-25 weeks. The animals—most commonly dogs—will be trained in the owner’s home, in a park with other dogs, and in public spaces like malls and pet stores.
The animals are subjected to every situation that may cause them to act up or stray from their job and won’t move on with training until they have settled in the environment.
The training requires a lot of dedication from the animals and their caregivers, so Klingsick is careful not to accept people into the program that are trying to get a service animal for reasons other than disability assistance.
“I ask them if they could get a note from their therapist or doctor saying that, yes, they will benefit from a service dog, and what the tasks are that they need their service dog to provide,” Klingsick says. “We do that requirement because that’s one way that we can help weed out those people who just want a dog to fly on a plane.”
When poorly trained SAs come in contact with those that are trained, they do not have the control to stay calm. They will become excited or could potentially lunge at another animal, and injuring a service animal can be detrimental to the person that they are working for.
Kelly Miller has been with her service dog Emerald for almost a year now. She is blind and waited over two years before receiving her guide dog from the Kansas Specialty Dog Service, which raises and trains dogs to be service animals.
“It’s my job to not untrain him, and I have to work with him every day,” Miller says. “It’s a matter of learning a bunch of commands, what to do when, how to correct, how to praise, and how to keep his attention on me.”
Canine Companion is one of the leading service dog organizations in the country, and in 2022 they conducted the biggest study of the impact of service dog fraud to date. This was a global survey that found 79% of respondents have experienced a poorly trained dog snapping at, biting, vocalizing, or interfering with their service dog. In addition, 80% said poorly trained dogs had negatively impacted their independence and quality of life.
Part of this issue is the confusion between the job of a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA). While both are intended to bring relief and support to their caregivers, the role of an ESA requires no special training. They bring relief through companionship.
“I think that ESAs have their value and they have their place, but it’s not in public where they can potentially harm me or my dog,” Miller says.
ESAs are not recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act and cannot accompany their owners in public spaces. However, in Missouri, SAs and ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which was created to require equal housing opportunities for everyone with a disability.
This act exempts anyone with an SA or ESA from “no animal” housing policies and pet fees, but landlords are allowed to request written proof from a medical professional in your state that you have a qualifying disability for an SA or an updated ESA letter.
This letter could be from a therapist that you are familiar with, or a short Google search can generate several pages of websites for setting up an appointment with a mental health professional. One of the most popular of these sites is Pettable. If you have $150 and time to answer a short survey, they will be able to match you with a therapist and get an ESA letter in your hands within three days.
Even with the protection of the Fair Housing Act, it is not uncommon for landlords to attempt to deny applicants with service and emotional support animals, claiming that their disability is fake or doesn’t qualify, especially among people with mental disabilities that aren’t as apparent.
Applicants who are denied do have the option to pursue legal action. Magda Werkmeister, the hotline coordinator for city-wide tenant union KC Tenants, says that she will direct people to legal services when receiving a call about “no pets allowed” housing. Sometimes it is just a case of bringing a legal professional to talk with the landlord, but it could also lead to filing a lawsuit.
Support animals are essential for people with disabilities to live full and independent lives. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act defend these rights, but it is not uncommon for people to abuse their privileges.
If your animal is not trained to behave and assist as a service animal, do not bring them to spaces where they can cause damage or harm others. The backlash from these incidents negatively affect those who may have been waiting for years or have spent thousands of dollars to have a legitimate service animal.
“I’m working so hard to help my community of people who have service dogs to not make it harder for anyone else. It is exhausting, but it’s fantastic because I can be independent,” Miller says. “[Emerald] gives me confidence that I didn’t have before.”