Healthy People Are Faking Disabilities To Get A Service Dog
You may think of service animals as those dogs that keep blind people from walking into traffic, but they're available for all sorts of conditions, like PTSD or anxiety. Or nothing at all, if you're willing to lie.
Yes, as you might have noticed if you've flown next to a suspiciously unruly rottweiler or seen three humping dogs forming a canine centipede at the DMV, there are a hell of a lot more service animals now than there used to be, and some of their owners seem perfectly healthy. Why in the hell would somebody fake a disability just to get a fake service animal? To find out, we talked with "Ashley," who did precisely that.
Does Your Lease Say "No Pets Allowed?" Well ...
This is the big one. If your pet counts as a support or assistance animal, you and your dog/cat/goat can stride happily past "No pets allowed" signs all day long. That's what got Ashley into the game.
"When my grandmother passed away," she says, "I got her dog, a little nine-month-old terrier. I was going to shelter him, but after a few months sorting things out at my grandma's house in Arizona, he became my little baby." Then she returned home and introduced her landlord to her brand-new roommate, a very good boy. The landlord said, "'I guess that means you're giving notice.' Because the lease had a no-pets policy."
But Ashley already had a counterattack ready in the form of a pile of documents prepared by her law student nephew. The terrier, she told the landlord, was her assistance animal. According to the Fair Housing Act, tenants are welcome to keep assistance animals, as "No pets" policies don't apply, since such animals aren't pets. Landlords can't even charge extra fees or a pet deposit. Ashley was welcome to keep it, so long as it was never documented being aggressive and required no unreasonable accommodations.
Those special laws weren't meant for her and her grandma's terrier. They were meant for animals that help people with disabilities (such as guide dogs for the blind), or comfort animals for people with severe mental illnesses like PTSD. Ashley simply claimed to have depression, having gotten the diagnosis specifically so she could keep the dog. The landlord said she'd soon hear from his lawyer. She never did. "I probably seem terrible to you," she says, "but I like to tell myself that at least I had a reason. I was depressed at the time, and I didn't want to see something of my grandma's go away. I grew attached, and I did what I had to do."
But that was only the beginning.
With A Fake Service Animal, You're An Instant VIP
Want to bring your dog on a plane? You can stow it under a seat for around $125, if it can fit. You can send it in cargo for $300. Or, if you call it a support animal, it rides for free thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act. "It's almost a secret club at airports and in airplanes," says Ashley. "Perfectly healthy people come in with service dogs, and there's always a knowing nod we have."
Outside of housing and flights, the rules are a lot tighter. Businesses are free to kick out emotional support animals. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they only have to allow service animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for the disabled, with "being h*ckin cute and floofy" not counting as a specific service task. But plenty of businesses aren't clear on the distinction, so they err on the side of letting assistance animals past every velvet rope.
"When you think of every place you've seen them, I've taken him there," says Ashley. "Lyfts. The subway. On beaches which said 'No dogs allowed.' Malls. Hotels. At first I did it because I wanted to see how far I could take it, but besides a few restaurants, I found out that there's virtually no limit." Once, she even brought him into a spa, a place not normally receptive to loud barks and shedding. "The manager had to come down and part a wall of employees for me, all of whom looked pissed."
From skipped fees and other perks, she reckons she saves a couple thousand dollars a year.
Certifying A Dog Can Be Nothing But An Elaborate Charade
There are a few ways, with varying degrees of legitimacy, to "certify" your animal (assistance animals today range from cats to the frickin' turkeys seen above). The first is you go the whole nine yards and get a real one. A dog may cost tens of thousands of dollars to train, and unless you're legit disabled and need it to open doors or push buttons, you aren't getting one.
The second way is outright fake certification, thanks to wide selection of "official service dog registries" awaiting you on the internet. "I signed up with four services," says Ashley. "I had to stop on the first four because it felt like a scam. They'd let my dog be licensed based solely on what I told them. It didn't feel right."
Those cost around $100 each. It's a great deal if your conscience doesn't object, and entirely sufficient for convincing people who don't know better. According to the ADA, you don't actually need to carry any certification. Businesses must take you at your word after asking only two questions: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? (to root out emotional support dogs) and What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? (for further rooting out). Oddly enough, the savviest business owners know that dog owners who do carry around certificates for their dogs are the ones most likely to be fakers.
The third way to certify your dog is the gray market approach, whereby you mix the previous two into what can best be described as "legal-ish." This starts with a medical diagnosis. "I was thinking about PTSD, but depression seemed the easiest," says Ashley. "I thought, 'I get depressed sometimes,' and I went to my doctor. I told him how bad it felt and how I didn't want to use pills. I needed something 'like a rock.' It wasn't hard selling him on being depressed. My grandma had just died, and I had been in a hospital in Arizona about depression because of how blue I was."
Armed with a doctor's note, she reached out to a certification group. Again, there's no official registry for service dogs, but some private companies will at least test your dog out to see that it's manageable in public and likely won't suddenly maul a baby. "I was instructed to walk down the street with him," recalls Ashley. "He was fine. Then I was told to bring him nearby a few large dogs. He looked a little intimidated, but again, he was fine. And that was it."
"Before I got everything I needed, I took my dog for a walk with his vest on, and I was given right of way. Joggers who otherwise wouldn't have moved before saw the vest when they were coming near and got out of my way. That little vest is a powerful thing."
And really, what's the harm?
Actual Disabled People Get Screwed
As fun as it would be to sneak your dog somewhere it shouldn't be, like an operating room or a SpaceX rocket, there are reasons businesses keep animals out. Even Ashley sees the other side now and again, like when she was on a flight to New York full of untrained "service dogs" barking their heads off and stewardesses trying vainly to quiet them all. Or the time she took her dog to the grocery store and saw six other dogs there too, forcing the manager to sub in for employees who had allergies. "He said, 'Do you absolutely need a dog with you? This is insane. We can barely run a business.' I didn't say anything, but I felt bad."
Many, many people are getting into the fake assistance animal game, and the real victims are those people who truly need them, but are disbelieved because of all the fraud out there. (Which is our biggest fear even running this article. Please do not go around accusing strangers of fraud because they don't "seem" disabled enough for their animal!) Some service dog owners report getting denied hotel rooms (Ashley herself is convinced she gets the worst room possible when hotels learn of her dog) or kicked off flights.
"Charlotte" is a friend of Ashley's who has a legitimate emotional support dog. "She saw a murder happen and has had PTSD ever since," she says. "Bad PTSD. Without her dog, I don't think she could leave the house." And Charlotte happened to take her dog to the grocery store (the same store as the allergies incident) when a pair of fake service dogs decided to chew up some stuff on the bottom shelves and then poop all over the floor. An employee yelled, "Hey, control your dog!" at Charlotte, the only innocent dog owner there, triggering her PTSD.
Not that that's enough to make Ashley keep her own dog at home. "My dog isn't promoting service dogs being out of control," she clarifies. "I'm ... probably sounding hypocritical still, but I said what I said."
People Are Catching On, And Fakers Do Get Punished ... Sometimes
Those incidents we mentioned just now, when businesses turn away service dogs? They aren't that common. Denying a service dog can turn into a PR nightmare, whether it's by a hotel, an airline, or Popeye's Chicken. "That's why we aren't called out on it more often," says Ashley. "No one wants to be the person bashing the handicapped out of something they need." So when the owner of one family-style restaurant refused her dog entry and finally threatened to call the police, Ashley wasn't shaken. "Do it!" she said. "They'll tell you how wrong you are!"
Within ten minutes, the cops were there.
"I was doing OK in convincing them until they asked if it was an emotional support dog," says Ashley. "To which I said yes. They knew about the service and support distinction, so they knew a lot about these laws. I didn't have to, but I showed them my certificate for my dog, and they said, 'Haven't seen them like this before.'" Now she started to panic, but she was saved by a random coincidence. The officer recognized the name of her doctor and decided to let her go. Petty corruption for the win!
California currently has a $1,000 fine and six months in jail lined up for faking a service dog. In Florida, it's $500 and two months in jail. Other states have measures too, and in case it sounds like a slap on the wrist, that's per count. So Ashley now keeps a lower profile -- including taking tips on how legitimate support animal owners act. "Owners with real problems won't let you touch the dog, or even get near it," she says. "It's working, and you can distract it. Owners taking it on for the hell of it, they'll be like, 'Sure, you can pet them!'" Even with emotional support dogs, you can't do that. "I have to act like that now."
One flight of Ashley's had three support dogs on it. There was her, a woman in a wheelchair, and then the third woman, who had a Chihuahua. "She was letting kids pet the dog," says Ashley, "and I had told those same kids before that my dog was working. The woman in the wheelchair overheard me and said, as we were both looking at her, 'Don't those people make you sick?' She had no idea."
Evan V. Symon is a journalist, interview finder guy, and writer for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked.
Instead of getting your floofer a service vest they're not qualified to wear and doing the general public a bamboozle, how about a heckin' cool but also warm coat instead?
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