Special Report: Pets in Public
The Americans with Disabilities Act opened the door for service animals to help the disabled in public places. But, some dog owners are breaking the rules.
It may have started with Paris Hilton’s pooch in a purse, but it’s gone as far as a pet squirrel on a plane for emotional support. Look around and you’ll see people taking animals into stores and restaurants.
But true service animal owners say there’s a danger with that.
Bear, a two year old golden doodle is a working service dog at Carl Junction school helping Jonah, who has autism.
His Mom Samantha Reynolds said the dog’s making a difference. “He’s come so far from where he was before he had the dog. He’s like night and day. Keeps him calm. He’s focused at school. He’s (the dog) been a blessing.”
Jonah said, “He sits on my lap to make me feel better. In case of I get upset. That’s how he helps me.”
It’s deep pressure therapy. Training that Bear gets from Tim Franks at On Command Canine Training Academy. That’s also where Bear learns how to make sure Jonah can’t run away.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jonah and Bear have access to public places. It’s a right granted only to service animals. Attorney Scott Voorhees explained ADA rules. “They don’t cover emotional support animals which sometimes is a blurry distinction for some folks.”
Voorhees added, “If it’s something outside of a dog or specific miniature horses, it’s not a service animal. Cats don’t make the cut.” Voorhees said, “Those may be comfort animals alright, you may be able to allow them in housing or on a plane although I wouldn’t want a snake on a plane.”
Cindy Torok made national news trying to take her comfort animal, a squirrel on an plane. It wasn’t welcome on a frontier flight which doesn’t allow rodents. Other passengers applauded her removal from the plane.
Service dogs are welcome at Moe’s restaurant. But workers have faced those who bring in dogs which are not service dog trained. Assistant manager Austin McCall said, “We’ve had a few people try to bring in little puppies sometimes. And we’ll tell them we can’t allow little puppies like that cause they can have accidents and that’s health code, can’t have that.”
ADA rules allow businesses to ask only two questions when it comes to service animals: 1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
There are more ‘can’ts’. Voorhees explained, “You can’t ask what the condition is. You can’t ask what the disability is. You can’t talk anything about their medical and they don’t have to tell you. Also You can’t ask for a demonstration.”
On Command begins working with dogs when they’re just puppies. It takes about 180 hours to get to Bear’s training level. However, even true service dogs can be kicked out if not under control barking or sniffing merchandise or not housebroken. Businesses’ fears about denying access to those with a legitimate disability can lead to inconsistent enforcement and dangerous dogs in public.
Samantha Reynolds described an encounter with another dog in Walmart. “We were just minding our business, and a big husky came up and bit Bear from behind. I screamed, he didn’t react accept to yelp. He didn’t try to fight back cause he’s been trained not to do that. It was really scary.”
Trainers and service pet owners said fake service animals put legitimate service dogs at risk.
Charles Hood doesn’t like public places or tight spaces. He copes with his dog Gunner by his side. Hood explained while walking in the Joplin Public Library, “He blocks everything away from me.”
Hood, a desert storm veteran who spent long periods in bunkers buried under sand, now has PTSD and Multiple Sclerosis. Hood said, “I would spend four to eight hours a night inside those while bombs were coming down. That tends to make you a little claustrophobic.”
Then there is Vanessa Stotts. She said her dog, Ramsley, helps her with anxiety and a panic disorder. Stotts said, “To just distract me from the outside world, calm me down whenever I need it, so.”
Stotts went online to register her dog and bought gear like a vest as many do. So did Hood for his previous dog Millie. Since then, Hood received a professionally trained dog through Heartland Canines. He now thinks fake service dog certifications are a bad idea. Hood said, “I think those sites should have to be shut down.”
We found that it’s pretty easy to get documentation that says you have a service dog. You can get identifications and certificates online. In fact one website lets you print them for free. You can also buy certifications for emotional support animals online complete with a therapist reference letter, But any animal can be labeled an emotional support animal, and there’s no certification needed. Emotional support animals nor their owners are protected by ADA laws.
Joplin resident Ashley Smith watched Franks’ training a dog at the mall. She shared a story about someone faking a service dog. “I actually witnessed that one time. Someone told me they got it online. I think that’s wrong. Some people do need service dogs. But how can you tell.”
Franks can tell since he trains service dogs. As he was leaving a lesson at the mall, Stotts dog pulled on it’s leash moving toward his dog. Franks said that’s the core problem with untrained dogs in public places. “The other dog wants to come over and greet the other dog. Sometimes it starts barking. Sometimes they become aggressive and attack the true service dogs.”
Tim Wallander’s service dog, Abby, alerts him for his diabetes. She has been attacked by other dogs that lack training. Wallander explained, “It was kind of frightening really cause I didn’t know what to do. It happened so fast. The other dog barked and lunged and growled at my dog.”
Franks said posers are breaking the law. “If you claim to have a disability to have the benefits of those that have a disability you’re actually violating the law.”
At Northpark Mall where Franks trains service dogs like Bear, some food court visitors said they are open to service animals but not simply pets in public places. Neshea Lane from Carthage said, “I don’t think that should be allowed. I know there was a lady in Walmart a couple months ago and I don’t think it was a service dog. And my daughter wanted to pet it and it snipped at her. Your pets are not meant to come in stores with you.”
Pet owners like Stotts want the ADA rules to change for emotional support animals. Some agree with her.
Casey Bacal from Neosho said, “A lot of people use them for depression, anxiety stuff like that. If they need it, it’s whatever. Doesn’t bother me any.”
Fredy Garibay of Joplin agreed. He said, “As long as they’re well behaved and stuff, I don’t see a problem with it.”
But others don’t agree just any animal should be in public.
Brad Laird said, “That might be opening up, you know, a door. Let’s say someone has a dog that doesn’t have really good manners and its jumping all over and barking in the restaurant. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
Nancie Brunk from Texas who had stopped at Moe’s said, “Food places don’t seem the proper place for someone else’s pets, that’s all.”
Even though emotional support animals aren’t allowed in public places under ADA, Stotts was not asked to leave the mall. She said, “It depends on people who are working. Some are, ‘Oh, he’s technically not a service animal so he can’t be here. Other people are ‘Ok, that’s fine.We’re not gonna bother you. He’s good.”
But Hood and Wallander believe that can put their dogs, that are trained at a cost of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, at risk. Hood worried about dogs in public, “If I’m in there, you could have my dog get hurt. Even if that doesn’t happen, it still lowers public perception for those of us that are honest.”
Many believe there should be a national certification program with specific training requirements. And last session, Missouri house members passed a bill to criminalize using fake service dogs but it didn’t make it through the senate. The sponsor will try again this year.
There’s no official registry for service dogs so enforcing ADA rules is difficult because merchants can’t ask for proof of an animals’ training.