Fraud sometimes undermines service animal system

Service Dogs like Daisy are trained to help their owners in a variety of ways. But recent outbreaks of service animal fraud are undermining the system

Chiver is among a group of special dogs-in-training that assist people with disabilities. But those who certify the presence of service animals on college campuses say these canines are often confused with comfort or therapy dogs that are not subject to such rigorous training.

By Patrick Ingraham
Nov. 30, 2016

Chiver, a two-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, is learning how to turn on lights, assist with laundry and wake up his future owner.

PAALS trainer Nick Borsellino shows how two-year-old Chiver will help his future owner turn on the lights.
PAALS trainer Nick Borsellino shows how two-year-old Chiver will help his future owner turn on the lights.

And while Chiver is your typical inquisitive and high-energy canine, he is being trained at Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services to help someone in need of a trained furry companion.

Those PAALS dogs, mostly Labradors and Retrievers, will be trained to help people with varying disabilities and a wide variety of needs in the Midlands area.

PAALS trainer Nick Borsellino said each dog is trained specifically to meet its future owner’s needs.

“There are a lot of veterans in the area, people with PTSD, autism, with genetic disorders, people in wheelchairs and who have trouble with mobility, so each dog can be trained to help all of these people specifically,” Borsellino said. “But the main thing these dogs do for their owners is provide some love and companionship.”

Borsellino says Labradors and Retrievers have some of the best temperament and energy levels appropriate for becoming a suitable service animal.

USC senior Jory Fleming with his service dog, Daisy. The two companions were acquainted in 2013.
USC senior Jory Fleming with his service dog, Daisy. The two companions were acquainted in 2013.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, asking a person for proof of their disabilities or proof that their service dog is legitimate is illegal. While this law protects those with disabilities, it makes it harder to discern whether a dog is a legitimate, certified service dog.

This can lead to an abuse of the system, which has become a real problem on college campuses across the country, according to Karen Pettus, USC’s student disability services director.

“When I see people out and about and their dog has on a service dog vest but they’re jumping on people or licking people in the face and stuff like that, then I know that’s not a legitimate service dog because that’s just a pet,” Pettus said.

While hasn’t been a huge problem at USC, Pettus says there have been instances across the country where dogs are not legitimately certified on campus. Service animal fraud is a growing problem due to businesses and online companies selling fake certification, registration and IDs.

Pettus says part of the problem is that there is confusion between service animals, trained to do specific tasks for their owners, and therapy and emotional support animals. Therapy animals are not trained to help with disabilities but are allowed, with university approval, for those with anxiety and other needs who need the constant companionship a pet can provide.

University of South Carolina senior Jory Fleming, who recently was awarded a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, says his service dog, Daisy, has helped him in a variety of ways since the two met in 2013. Fleming, who has autism, explained just a few of the ways Daisy helps him out day-to-day.

“I wear knee braces, so Daisy helps me some with mobility and getting around,” Fleming said. “I do have a genetic condition, which is why I have a backpack on me at all times. I’m at a risk of low blood sugar, so it has a pump, formula and medicines going in it.”

“Daisy is trained to respond to the pump,” he said. “It makes a beeping sound if there’s a problem and she’ll nudge me on the arm or leg to alert me to that.”

Pettus says service animals are allowed to be with their owners at all times with university approval while therapy animals and emotional support animals must have university approval to stay in dorms. These animals are not allowed inside other campus buildings.

According to Service Dog Central: “animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being are not service animals…”

Despite that, Fleming believes the current system in place does more good than harm to those with disabilities.

USC Student Disability Services Director Karen Pettus explains that service animal fraud has become a problem on college campuses, forcing USC to follow a strict approval process for students with service animals and emotional wellness animals.
USC Student Disability Services Director Karen Pettus explains that service animal fraud has become a problem on college campuses, forcing USC to follow a strict approval process for students with service animals and emotional wellness animals.

“I think it’s the correct choice to err on the side of protecting people with disabilities even if it leads to abuse of the system,” Fleming said.

Pettus says the Office of Student Disability Services at USC has a rigid approval process for both certified, trained service dogs and for emotional support animals, eliminating some of the problems created by this abuse.

There are several ways to tell if a service dog is legitimate.

First, a quick internet search of organizations that distributed any registration or identification will reveal whether it is an agency that actually trains service dogs or one that simply certifies and registers any dog for a fee.

Under the Americans With Disabiliies Act, the U.S. Department of Justice permits employers and businesses to ask two questions:

  1. Is this a service dog required because of a disability?
  2. What is it trained to do to mitigate the disability?

And any animal behaving inappropriately, disrupting business, behaving aggressively or generally misbehaving can be excluded on the basis of “fundamental alteration” or “direct threat.”

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