September may have been National Service Dog Month, but that doesn’t mean that everyone was in a celebratory spirit. In fact, many states are passing legislation to deter individuals from faking their service animal credentials, as this issue has evidently been a problematic one for quite some time. And yet, many Americans don’t quite understand what service animals do — or why they’re so essential for people with a number of debilitating conditions.
Worldwide, some 650 million people are living with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as pets (typically dogs) that provide fundamental assistance for people with disabilities — activities such as walking, wheelchair guidance, or even medical-related tasks (like barking when their owner has a seizure or giving reminders to take medications). Service animals can be granted to people with cognitive disorders as well as those with vision and sight problems. Since roughly two to three out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. is born with a detectable level of hearing loss, the presence of these animals can provide the ability for all kinds of people to lead productive lives, even when faced with immense challenges.
Service animals, contrary to what some might believe, are notthe same as emotional support animals (ESAs). Service dogs can be considered guide dogs, signal dogs, medical alert dogs, or mobility assistance dogs — meaning that they have an important job to do and must be trained accordingly. Emotional support animals can theoretically be any of species (meaning that even the marine fish in your tank, which might naturally occupy the coral reefs that make up less than one-quarter of the 1% marine environment in the world, could receive an ESA certification) and really don’t need specific training. The ESA certificant merely needs to be diagnosed with an applicable mental health condition in order to receive the go-ahead to have an animal that provides emotional support. Service animals have to tick a lot more boxes in order to meet the proper thresholds. And while ESA owners are allowed to travel with their pets and make sure their landlords provide accommodations for housing, ESAs aren’t always allowed in other places; service dogs, on the other hand, can accompany their owners in any public space.
But while most households in the U.S. have at least one pet, some people want their pups to be considered service animals — even if they don’t meet the requirements to do so. Unfortunately, the internet has made it easier for people to falsely register their pets as service animals — an illegal but prevalent act. Some states, like Alabama and Massachusetts, are cracking down on this practice by extending fines to pet owners who misrepresent their animals as service dogs. Sadly, those who have fake service animals are making it harder for those with legitimate needs to get the assistance they need. The Foundation for Service Dog Support estimates that roughly 95% of dogs presented as service animals have not been lawfully obtained and are technically not service animals at all. And while business owners can inquire as to whether an animal is a service animal and ask abut the task the dog is trained to perform, further questioning would be most likely be a violation of other laws. That makes it difficult to discern the real service animals from the fake ones. What’s more, fake service animals can actually distract trained service dogs from doing their duties. And amidst all the crackdowns, those with disabilities may find it more difficult to be approved and be accommodated for the pups that can improve their quality of life.
Recent awareness campaigns have aimed to show the public that a service animal is far more than just the vest they often wear. The distinctions are important; service animal certification is not meant for owners who simply want to spend more time with their dogs. For many Americans, a service animal could make all the difference between life and death.