Counterfeit Canines: Air Travelers With Fake Assistance Dogs | life and style

VIctor Hurtado, a member of the Secretary of the Army’s staff, was waiting for a connecting flight at San Francisco airport when he was suddenly attacked by an aggressive brown poodle. The dog, teeth bared, rushed in his direction, ready to bite.

A bloody outcome was only averted because Hurtado’s mobility dog, a black Labrador named Holly, had been trained to avoid escalation when faced with violent behavior.

Holly was matched with Hurtado nearly three years ago to help him live with cognitive disability and trauma associated with his time in the military. She has undergone years of training not only to meet her specific needs, but also to behave appropriately and safely in public spaces.

Yet, despite the vast difference in the behavior of the two dogs, they had one characteristic in common: both wore service dog vests.

The incident left Holly shaken and unable to perform her vital duties even after boarding the plane, momentarily leaving Hurtado without her disabled help – all because someone felt the need to pretend that her dog was a service animal. “It breaks my heart, really,” Hurtado says. “I feel like they think our animals are a joke.”

An epidemic in the sky

Hurtado’s story is not uncommon. Over the past two decades, the number of passengers taking their dogs on planes has increased due to growing awareness of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that companies are not allowed to ask for proof that a dog service dog is indeed a service dog.

This legal protection was designed to safeguard the most basic dignities of people with disabilities – imagine a wheelchair user questioned about the legitimacy of their wheelchair – but has led to widespread exploitation of this loophole.

These days, unscrupulous pet owners are getting Emotional Support Animal (ESA) certificates, which allow them to travel with their pets, helping to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and depression. phobia. The number of certificates issued increased by 1,000% between 2002 and 2015, and by another 200% between 2015 and 2019.

Good boys: assistance dogs in training. Photography: Pluto/Alamy

While pets undoubtedly provide emotional support simply by being themselves, they are not trained to help a person with a disability navigate life, nor taught to behave appropriately in public. And since anyone can get an ESA certificate – all it takes is a doctor’s note, although buying it online is easy – good dogs and bad dogs, gentle dogs and aggressive dogs qualify. all for the title.

The problem got so bad that in December 2020, the Department of Transportation (DoT) tightened its rules to only allow trained service dogs on airplanes, saying it no longer considered an emotional support animal. like a service animal.

Dishonest pet owners were not deterred. Instead of claiming their pet is an emotional support animal, they are now completely lying and calling it a service dog.

Theresa Stern, vice president of cross-disciplinary client services and engagement for Guide Dogs for the Blind, is abuzz. She navigates life with her eight-year-old yellow Labrador, Wills, and can’t stomach the fact that people pretend to be disabled to get their pet dogs stolen for free.

“I regard them as verifying [their] integrity at the door. Airlines require you to complete federal certifications indicating that you are a disabled person and that your dog has been specifically trained to mitigate your disability. This is what makes it a service animal.

The language of the DoT is clear: a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to perform work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, including those trained for psychiatric support.

This means no cats, iguanas, peacocks, llamas – all of which have been taken on planes before – or any other animal other than a dog.

A service dog walks down the aisle of a United Airlines plane.
A service dog walks down the aisle of a United Airlines plane. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

As for the tasks service dogs perform, the answer is much more varied. Many mistakenly believe that all service dogs are guide dogs, but today they can be trained to help with a range of disabilities. Organizations often breed and train dogs for specific programs, usually at no cost to the client. The cost for these organizations to train a dog ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 and takes an average of two to two and a half years.

Service Dogs of Virginia, where Holly trained, offers five programs. “We train autistic dogs for young children and young adults on the spectrum; we train physical assistance dogs – the majority of them are trained for people who use electric wheelchairs,” says Sally Day, Development Manager. They also train PTSD dogs for veterans and first responders, medical alert dogs, and facility dogs working in schools or in counseling settings.

As part of their training, service dogs are taken to airports and on airplanes to acclimatize. “Airports are incredibly complex environments where you’ll need to use an escalator or elevator,” says Day. Airplanes are a whole other level of complexity, with their compact space, strange noises and smells, and so many strangers crammed in. A fake service dog would be immediately overwhelmed.

Day looks frustrated as we talk on the phone: “That someone would take their dog that they think means so much to them in an environment like this without any training – what does that tell you?”

Fake service dogs muddy the waters

Travel writer Becca Blond was traveling in the bulkhead seat with her medical alert dog, a pit bull named Bobbi, when an untrained dog across the aisle began barking, growling and rush at them.

Bobbi remained silent, but the flight attendant said she couldn’t have a dogfight on her plane. After the owner of the other dog admitted she had purchased an illegal service dog license weeks before, Blond assumed they would be moved. Instead, she was the one who was moved to the back of the plane due to Bobbi’s race, although she never made a sound.

A service dog named Orlando rests on his trainer's foot in Newark, New Jersey.
A service dog named Orlando rests on his trainer’s foot in Newark, New Jersey. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

Disabled travelers with assistance dogs are also indirectly affected by the proliferation of bogus assistance dogs. Hurtado says Holly is regularly approached by children and adults looking to pet her. “They completely ignore the fact that [her vest] says do not touch, do not disturb, do not distract. But because fake service dogs can’t be interrupted — since they’re not working — people have grown accustomed to being allowed to pet dogs with vests.

The service dog community at large is concerned that the increase in misbehavior by fake service dogs will force lawmakers to create restrictive legislation targeting service dogs. “Ultimately what happens is the airlines get frustrated, the public gets frustrated, and then the laws can change,” Stern says. “And that might change to be: no dogs [allowed]. And then it means that I can’t go where I have to go to live my life.

Are more liberal pet policies the answer?

Despite what some may believe, faking service dog status isn’t always about having dogs fly for free.

Stephanie Brown lives overseas but returns to the United States with her Pomeranian, Penny, finding limited options for her to bring her dog safely. (Owner and dog use a pseudonym.)

Brown had Penny registered as an ESA before the DoT removed them from the service dog definition. “At some point last May in 2021, [American Airlines] even put pets on hiatus due to the constant flight changes due to Covid,” she says. With no options for getting well-behaved Penny on the plane — cabin or cargo hold — Brown registered her on the federal service dog website. American Airlines is maintaining its restriction against dog screening in cargo for regular travelers, as are Delta Air Lines and Southwest.

There is clear evidence that more liberal policies for pets on planes would reduce the exploitation of loopholes. “With a zero-tolerance policy, owners will of course find a way for their pet to travel safely in the cabin,” says Brown. “Even charging more for a pet, but making the experience more comfortable for owner and animal would reduce the need to claim a pet as a service or emotional support animal.”

Likewise, large-breed dogs have limited options to fly until pet cargo shipping resumes – and only if they don’t exceed weight, size and breed constraints. – a solution is therefore needed to ensure that they too can travel. If a global service dog accreditation system were implemented and enforced, it would not only guarantee a dog’s service status, but could also include a way for pet dogs to be verified as safe. to fly in the cabin.

Meanwhile, Blond and Hurtado have had their service dog’s legitimacy questioned, which is wearing them down. They think they shouldn’t have to defend themselves just because they have a disability.

“I don’t think the world owes me anything because I’m disabled,” says Hurtado, “but I feel like it’s a right that we have and should be taken seriously. People buying fake jackets and having fake service dogs, it’s really disheartening. I see it’s no different than someone parking in a handicapped spot, [who’s] not disabled”.

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