HBD RePost - Your 'Service' Dog Is Making Me Anxious | How The Dogs-In-Restaurants Trend Is Completely Out-Of-Control

A sign hanging at Oscar's in Pacific Beach
April 18, 2016

In honor of my mother's birthday, I am reposting her favorite SanDiegoVille article. Happy Birthday, Mom!!

I should begin by saying that I'm not really a "dog person", nor a "people person", for that matter. That's not to say I don't inherently like dogs or people, it's that I'm selective and prefer that a dog or a person be clean, somewhat quiet, nicely groomed and well mannered, especially if I have to dine near them. Now, as the subject of this post suggests, I'm perturbed by the bring-your-dogs-everywhere-and-claim-they-are-service-animals trend that is pervading San Diego and beyond. It's totally, completely, ridiculously, offensively out of control, and unfortunately for everyone else like me, the law is on the side of the canine-obsessed. Here I break down the service animal situation so that public businesses are aware and, conversely and completely unintentionally, so that the cheaters can cheat with even greater ease.

Brody "Pop Pop" Lewis
My mom is obsessed with her dog. She truly believes that he is the reincarnation of her late father. She brings him everywhere. She was just in San Diego over the holidays and little Brody was with us everywhere we went. Was I cool with it? No - I felt like a complete and utter hypocrite. Do I think she's a bit looney? Well, he does act a bit like my grandfather. But here's the thing - there was not one place we went to that gave her any grief about toting the dog along or even ask her about him, and she never once asserted that it was a service animal. Why the lack of questioning, I wondered. The reason is that business owners are hesitant, and possibly downright scared, because the law is completely favorable to owners of 'service dogs,' an accreditation that has become as easy to obtain as on online minister ordination to marry your best friends.

Now before you start blasting me, let's get this straight: I have absolutely no issue with true service dogs - those that are performing some necessary task for their physically-disabled and/or seriously emotionally plagued human. If a person is blind, deaf, in need of a medical alert, has serious PTSD, or has any other serious health issue for which a dog reasonably may provide assistance, then of course they should be entitled to bring their professionally trained canine along. But let's be real, about 90% of those touting their animals 'service dogs' are full of it, and they are abusing a privilege that was meant to grant access to those in serious need. Even the law seems far too expansive with regard to what afflictions may require a service animal and what constitutes an adequately trained dog, allowing for these fraudulent abuses to take place on a pervasive scale.

Under recent Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, a “service animal” is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” While this particular definition is limited to dogs, federal regulations provide that under the ADA, miniature horses must also be permitted as service animals if they are trained to benefit an individual with a covered disability and can be reasonably accommodated. This is not a joke.

So how does a dog or mini-horse become a service animal? Is it an extensive multi-year program akin to a human becoming a therapist? Nope. While various online sites offer the accreditation for a small fee, like this one here, the sole legal requirement for a service animal is that it be "individually trained to benefit the person with a covered disability." The animal doesn't even have to be trained by a professional, rather it may be 'trained' by a neighbor, friend, local transient, a family member, or even the person with the alleged disability. It does not have to be tested or registered, it does not have to wear a special tag or vest, or be identified at all as a service animal. Yes, true service dogs must undergo extensive training to perform their functions, but that is not what I'm discussing here. I'm talking about "service" dogs NOT service dogs.  

Under California and federal law, businesses that serve the general public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, may only ask two questions when someone brings their pup or mini-horse into their establishment: “Is this a service animal for a disability?” (do not dare ask specifics about the disability!) AND “What service is it trained to perform?” Any inquiry beyond those two questions and the business may expose themselves to possible civil litigation and criminal fines (up to $2,500 in CA). The public place cannot require and it is not  advisable that they even ask a person to prove that their dog is a service animal. Although those lying about a service dog may be charged with a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 (and/or up to six months imprisonment), who is actually enforcing this and how?

Service dogs EVERYWHERE!
Okay, so what about "therapy dogs," "comfort dogs," "emotional support dogs,"etc.? This is where the law becomes vague and convoluted, and for many businesses, it's just not worth the potential trouble. The easy answer is that a service animal is trained to perform work or tasks directly related to their owner's disability while those other classifications help the owner merely through their presence. The problem is that any of those classifications can actually fall under 'service animal' protection by law anyway if the person can point to a trained action that the dog does to help the owner, so why risk it? My recommendation for businesses is to try asking the two questions permitted, and if the person stumbles and cannot classify the animal as a service dog for a disability that performs a certain remedial task to assist the person's disability, then you can ask them to put their pup in the car or tie it up outside. 

Not sure that's actually a fact.
Alright, so what if a 'service animal' is on the table at a restaurant? Although the restaurant can ask the person to move it off the table due to health issues, service dogs cannot be prohibited from being on furniture if it is necessary to perform their tasks. What about barking? Sometimes that's necessary to alert their owner to a medical issue. The law provides very limited reasons to refuse or kick out a service dog. The listed reasons include: when its presence would fundamentally alter the program, benefit, service, etc. of the establishment; when the dog poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others; if the animal is out of control and the animal’s owner does not take effective action to control it; and if the animal is not housebroken. Now with that said, a service dog cannot be automatically booted for an “accident,” because the law provides that occasional defecation on your floor or booth is expected every once in awhile. Gross.

How can we resolve this service dog fraud problem? Sure, we can call our local Congressperson and demand some form of placard and registration, but when has that actually worked? My proposal - we, everyday citizens, may need to look for telltale signs of fraud and abuse and ask for proof from the perpetrators ourselves, taking it out of the hands of the victimized businesses. A service animal is generally not supposed to be on a retracting leash, for example (unless its human is in a wheelchair). Properly trained service animals are usually trained to be more docile, to not jump up on legs, tables, chairs, etc., or bark at people or other animals. If we see this happening, it is likely not a service animal at all. Call that person out if that's your thing. Make a citizen's arrest! Really, I don't know what should be done, but the current law is certainly problematic and evidently ripe for abuse.

So what's the problem with dogs being permitted in public places, specifically restaurants, anyway? It's been going on forever in Europe, you know. If it doesn't hurt anybody, blah blah blah. Personally, my biggest problem with it is CLEANLINESS. And I don't want to hear anything like "dogs' mouths are cleaner than humans" or "my dog is cleaner and better behaved than your kid." Nonsense. Dogs are trekking all over town, pooping and peeing in public with their bare feet, stomping around the streets, sniffing and licking garbage, other dogs' butts, possibly eating feces, and who knows what else. Furthermore, are you familiar with people having allergies to dogs? People that are anxious around dogs? Who is protecting these people?

I welcome any thoughts and comments on this issue. Please email us at dogs@sandiegoville.com and check out the links below for more information.