Trotting through stores, sitting in restaurants, boarding planes—animals are everywhere. Some assist people with physical problems. Others comfort those with emotional needs. But sometimes, untrained, dangerous pets end up where they don’t belong.
Who Makes the Rules?
Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has allowed people with physical or mental impairments to enter public spaces with trained service animals.
The Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development decide how ADA rules apply in public. These departments also make allowances for people with mental and emotional disorders to travel with “support animals.” Some believe that support animals can help relieve some disabling emotional symptoms, but they are not service animals.
According to the ADA, a service animal is generally a dog. It is defined as one “that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
The law intends to give disabled people with service dogs access to every part of public life—just the way a person without a disability readily enjoys that access. That means that ADA service dogs may legally accompany their handlers almost anywhere. Emotional support animals may not.
What’s the Problem?
Few people outside government agencies know the difference. And no one polices the rules. Therefore, dishonesty abounds in the blurred lines between service animal and emotional support animal.
Individuals with emotional support animals are supposed to have certification of a mental or emotional disorder. But some mental health professionals will confirm the “need” for a support animal without ever seeing a patient in a doctor-patient setting.
Online sellers peddle official-looking vests and patches. With such an outfit, pets may look official, even if they aren’t. Some owners buy the gear just to take a favorite pet along into pet-free zones such as the mall, a restaurant, or an airplane.
Many so-called support animals are completely untrained. They bark or chew or leave messes, unlike trained animals. As Marlin Jackson found out, unruly pets can cause big problems.
Jackson had a window seat on a cross-country flight. The passenger next to him held an emotional support dog. The nervous dog growled and lunged. Jackson ended up with 28 stitches in his face.
Store managers, restaurant owners, and building supervisors try to navigate unclear laws, deciding which animals to allow in no-pet spaces. But denying access to a disabled person with a lawful service dog can result in a $10,000 fine. It often seems cheaper and less risky for business owners simply to hope that problem animals don’t harm patrons.
Badly behaved animals can also make things harder for the disabled. Deni Elliott is a visually impaired college professor with a service dog. He’s seen an increasing need to cope with “clueless handlers allowing their pets to interfere with my dog’s work.”