Joplin, MO -
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 aÂ purse,Â but itâs 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 Â restaurants.
But true service animal owners say thereâs a danger with that.
Bear, a two year old golden doodle is a working service dogÂ at Carl Junction school helping Jonah,Â who has autism.
His Mom Samantha Reynolds said the dogâs making a difference. “He’s come so far from where he was before he had the dog.Â He’s like night and day. Â Keeps him calm.Â Heâs focused at school. Heâs (the dog) Â been a blessing.”
Jonah said,Â “HeÂ sits on my lap to make me feel better. In case of I get upset. Thatâs how he helps me.”
It’s deep pressure therapy.Â Training thatÂ Bear gets fromÂ Tim Franks at On Command Canine Training Academy. Thatâs also
where Bear Â learns how to make sure Jonah canât run away.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jonah and Bear have access to public places. Itâs a right granted only to service animals. Attorney Scott Voorhees explained ADA rules. âThey don’t cover emotional supportÂ animals which sometimesÂ is a blurry distinction for some folks.”
Voorhees added, “If itâs somethingÂ outside of a dogÂ or specificÂ miniatureÂ horses,Â it’s not a service animal. Cats donât make the cut.” Voorhees said, âThose may be comfort animalsÂ alright, youÂ may be able to allow them in housing or on a plane although I wouldnât want a snake on a plane.”
Cindy Torok made national news trying to take her comfort animal, a squirrel on an plane. It wasnât welcome on a frontier flightÂ which doesnât allow rodents.Â Other passengers applauded her removal from the plane.
Service dogs are welcome at Moeâs restaurant. Â But workers have faced those who bring in dogs which are not service dog trained. Assistant manager Austin McCall said,Â “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 thatâs health code,Â can’t haveÂ 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? Â 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 canât ask what the disabilityÂ is.Â You can’t talk anything about Â their medical and they don’t have to tell you.Â Also You canât ask for a demonstration.”
On Command begins working with dogs when they’re just puppies. It takes about 180 hours to get to Bearâs training level. However, even true service dogs can be kicked out if not under control barking or sniffing merchandise or not housebroken.Â Businessesâ fears about denying access to those with a legitimate disability can lead to inconsistent enforcement and dangerous dogs in public.Â
Samantha Reynolds described an encounter with another dog in Walmart. âWe were justÂ minding our business, and a big husky came up and bit Bear from behind. I screamed,Â he didnât react accept to yelp.Â He didnât try to fight back cause heâs 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 HoodÂ doesnât like public places or tight spaces.Â HeÂ copes with his dog Gunner by his side.Â Hood explained while walking in the Joplin Public Library,Â “HeÂ blocks everything awayÂ from me.”
Hood,Â aÂ desert storm veteranÂ who spent long periods in bunkers buried under sand,Â now has PTSD and Multiple Sclerosis. Hood said, “I would spend four to eight hours a night inside thoseÂ while bombs were coming down. That tends to make you a little claustrophobic.”
Then there is VanessaÂ Stotts. SheÂ said her dog, Ramsley, helps her with anxiety and a panic disorder.Â Stotts said, “To just distract me fromÂ the outside world, calm me down whenever I need it, so.”
StottsÂ went online to register herÂ dog and bought gear likeÂ a vest as many do.Â So did Hood for his previous dog Millie. Since then, Hood received a professionally trained dog through Heartland Canines.Â He now thinks fake service dog certifications are a bad idea. Hood said,Â âI think those sites should have to be shut down.”
We found that itâs pretty easy to get documentation that saysÂ you have a service dog. You can getÂ 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 thereâs no certification needed.Â Emotional support animals nor their owners are protected by ADA laws.Â Â
Joplin resident Ashley Smith watched Franks’ training a dog at the mall. She shared a story about someone faking a service dog. âI actually witnessed that one time. Someone told me they got it online. I think thatâs wrong. Some people do need service dogs.Â 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 itâs leash moving toward his dog. Franks said thatâs 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 becomeÂ aggressive and attack the true service dogs.”
Tim Wallander’s service dog, Abby,Â alerts himÂ forÂ his diabetes. She has been attacked by other dogs that lack training.Â Wallander explained, “It was kind of frightening really cause I didn’t know what to do. ItÂ happenedÂ so fast. The other dog barked and lunged and growled at my dog.”
Franks said posers are breaking the law. âIfÂ you claim to have a disability to have the benefits of those that haveÂ 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 donât think that should be allowed. I know there was a lady in Walmart a couple months ago and I donât 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 likeÂ StottsÂ want the ADA rules to change for emotional support animals. Some agree with her.
Casey Bacal from Neosho said,Â “A lot of people use them for depression, anxiety stuff like that.Â If they need it, itâs whatever. Doesnât bother me any.”
Fredy Garibay of Joplin agreed. He said, âAs long as theyâre well behaved and stuff, I donât see a problem with it.”
But others don’t agree just any animal should be in public.
Brad Laird said, âThat might beÂ opening up, you know, a door. Letâs say someone has a dog that doesnât have really good manners and its jumping all over and barking in the restaurant. I donât think that would be appropriate.â
Nancie Brunk from Texas who had stopped at Moeâs said, “Food places donât seem the proper place for someone else’s pets, thatâs all.”
Even though emotional support animals arenât allowed in public places under ADA, Stotts was notÂ asked to leave the mall. She said, “It depends on people who are working. Some are, âOh, he’s technically not a service animal soÂ he can’t beÂ here. Other people are âOk, that’s fine.We’re not gonna bother you. Heâs good.â
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 Iâm in there,Â you could have my dog get hurt. Even if that doesnât 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 toÂ criminalize usingÂ fake service dogs but it didn’t make it through the senate. The sponsorÂ will try again this year.
There’s no official registry for service dogs so enforcing ADA rules is difficult because merchants canât ask for proof of an animals’ training.