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anne mikolay 2012 120If you have ever seen a service dog “on duty”, you are well aware that he/she is a highly trained, highly valued animal performing an important function for the owner. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal “as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability”.  While the most easily recognizable service animal is the guide dog supporting the blind, service animals also assist the hearing impaired, persons with mobility issues, and those with seizure/medical disorders. Psychiatric service animals support patients with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or medication issues. Contrary to popular belief, service dogs are not restricted to large breeds; Guinness reports the smallest service/therapy dog is a two pound chihuahua named Cupcake. Though Cupcake is adorable, she (like her fellow service animals) is not a pet. The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, states “Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers...Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.”

And there's the problem.

The very rights protecting and ensuring the privacy of the disabled enable scam artists to turn their pets into service dog imposters. While nationally recognized organizations like Therapy Dogs International regulate the testing, certification, and registration of therapy dogs, all of whom have been tested and evaluated by a Certified TDI Evaluator and determined to be of sound behavior, temperament, and health, not every dog you see in a therapy dog vest or collar has thus earned the credential. Some are wearing bogus credentials purchased on the internet! Why would an individual pay upwards of $149.00 to outfit their pet with fake identification? Apparently, if a recent article in the New York Post (http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/they_re_licked_H9js6NfMXjSAbkkCYu97NI ) is accurate, these pet owners want to bring their animals into posh eateries and establishments in New York City (and probably elsewhere). When they do, the ADA guarantees they can't be turned away or interrogated regarding their (alleged) disability.

My little chihuahua, an anxiety ridden dog with health issues, panics when I am not nearby, refusing to eat or sleep. In effect, I am her psychiatric service support and, thus, would love to have her with me at all times. Will I slap an imitation therapy vest on her and pass her off as a service animal simply to satisfy my selfish desires? Absolutely not! My sense of propriety will not allow me to disrespect individuals with documented disabilities or degrade their licensed service animals with such selfish indifference and ignorance. Is contemporary society so pampered and narcissistic that the rights of others are secondary to personal, selfish whim? That a person would pretend to be disabled in any way and present his/her pet as a qualified service animal is appalling. There should be severe punishment and fines for this behavior.

Unfortunately, the civil rights protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act make it nearly impossible to flesh out bogus service animals and their offending owners. Scam artists are well aware of this. What they are far less familiar with is the trust, integrity, and honesty inherent in the ADA.