Fake credentials are nothing new. They’ve been around as long as scam artists and mail-order “correspondence courses.” Probably even longer.
But there is a new trend in this space that we find particularly disturbing – the proliferation of fake service dog accreditation and vests. Particularly for what the courses and sales pitches describe as “emotional support animals.” Real service animals can be amazing and life-changing for the people they support. And it isn’t just the iconic seeing-eye dog. Dogs can be trained to detect epileptic seizures and position themselves between their handler and any hard surface they might hurt themselves on while experiencing a seizure. Dogs that are trained to open doors, turn off lights, and perform other minor tasks can help make the dream of self-sufficiency achievable for those confined to wheelchairs or with other mobility issues. And, yes, emotional support animals can help victims of trauma or those with other mental health issues to heal or to cope with stressful situations. But not every pet is a service animal, no matter how much you love them or how much happier and more worthwhile they make your life. The testimonials for these service animal vests and associated “accreditations” online boast of receiving accommodations from hotels or landlords who don’t allow animals, because they fear violating American Disability Act (ADA) regulations. These regulations, however, were passed to help people with disabilities have a path for requesting reasonable accommodations that allow them to live a normal life. They were not enacted so an individual can take their untrained, and ill-behaved pet into a restaurant or retail store at their whim. They aren’t a loophole so you can intimidate a desk clerk into letting you rent a room in a pet-free hotel. They’re there to level the field and make regular life accessible to those with a disability. Those who take advantage of these regulations, and fear of reprisal, for their own selfish ends do a disservice to those who rely on service animals; and to the amazing animals who have gone through rigorous training and evaluation before being paired with the people they assist. While Kentucky law recognizes emotional support animals – and differentiates them from other service animals, allowing business to place restrictions on their access that they can’t legally place on other service animals – the state does require those who seek accommodations for their emotional support animals to receive and keep a letter from their physician or mental health provider stating the need. The animals do not have to have the same level of training that other service animals require, or any training at all. But their owners do need to have a legitimate need. Unfortunately, that information doesn’t need to be verified to purchase a vest or “training” from an online provider. And many businesses – particularly those related to lodging – will simply err on the side of caution, rather than risk infringing someone’s rights. None of that, however, changes the fact that at least some of these individuals are abusing the system for their own selfish ends. And that’s more than a shame. It hurts those with legitimate need.