A new Florida law means jail time if you pose your pet as a service animal.
Starting July 1, anyone who lies about their animals being a guide or service animal could face up to 60 day in Jail.
For guide dog owners like Richard Darrington, this new law could help discourage imposters.
“I think it will cause people who are on the fence to think before moving forward with the decision,” Darrington explained.
He said that’s important because he is constantly asked whether his dog, Malcolm, is certified and trained.
Darrington is legally blind and needs Malcolm, who was trained for two years to be a guide dog to help him get around.
“I’m questioned all the time, ‘Is this a real guide dog?’” Darrington said. “I know part of that is because there are others out there that are masquerading and that hampers my ability to do what I need to do.”
If the dog is found to be wearing false identifiers, and isn’t properly trained then the owner will go to jail.
- READ THE LAW: HB 71 - Service Animals
The law was sponsored by State Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness. Smith said he was approached by a disability rights group because veterans with PTSD said they were having trouble with access.
"There was a need for it, and local groups in the state of Florida wanted it," Smith said.
Smith said he worked with local groups as well, but it was tricky because the bill could not step on the toes of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"So many people wanted us to do certifications and we absolutely told them there was no way to do certifications because the federal government doesn't do certifications," Smith said.
The main purpose of the bill though is to provide clarity -- for owners, for businesses and for the general public.
Service Animals FAQ
What makes an animal a service animal?
The Americans With Disabilities Act defines a service animal as the following:
Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
Examples include guide dogs for the blind, dogs who pull wheelchairs, dogs who alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person to take medications or calming a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.
A service animal is not a pet. If you see someone with a service animal in store, you shouldn't ask to pet the dog because it is most likely working.
In Florida, a service animal can be a dog or a miniature horse, according to the new law.
What's the difference between a service animal, an emotional support animal or comfort animal and a therapy animal?
Service animals go where their owners go. Because they perform specific tasks directly related to the person's needs, they are always needed anywhere.
An emotional support or comfort animal is not a service dog because while they provide therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability through the pet's companionship. Any animal can be an emotional support animal if a doctor is willing to sign off on it. But the animal is not specifically trained to perform tasks. Because of that an ESA does not get the kind of public access a service animal has. However, if the person has an emotional support animal that is approved by a medical professional, they can live in a housing unit that has a "no pets" rule, according to the federal Fair Housing Act. Airlines are also more willing to let an emotional support animal travel in the cabin of an airplane, under certain limitations. Check with the individual airlines.
A therapy dog, however, is neither. Therapy dogs are used in a wide variety of roles. They are best known for visiting people at facilities like hospitals, nursing homes and schools. They can provide comfort and stress relief for patients. They can also help in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers as a tool in therapy and treatment. But they do not have the public access a service dog has.
Where are service dogs allowed?
Essentially every where. Even at places like restaurants and supermarkets where dogs are not usually allowed, or other places where state or local health codes would prohibit animals. However, there are rules:
They must be properly harnesses, leashed or tethered unless the devices interfere with a service animal's work, or the individual's disability prevents them from using them. Then the individual has to maintain control of the animal through voice, signal or other controls.
Also, the animal must be well trained. A person who uses a service dog has to make sure that dog goes through multiple levels of training, from basic obedience to the Public Access Test. While they do not have to show a license or any evidence to training to a business, if they are dragged into court they will have to show documentation that the dog can pass the Public Access Test.
Is it true businesses are not allowed to question people with service dogs?
Businesses are not allowed to ask for proof of certification or medical documentation regarding a service dog. They are not allowed to ask specifically about the person's disability or if the dog is a service dog. They are, however, allowed to ask TWO questions, per the ADA:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
The business also cannot charge a person with a service animal extra fees or isolate them from other patrons.
If the animal is out of control and the owner doesn't take action to control it, or the animal poses a direct threat to other patrons, the business can be asked to remove the dog from the premises. The disabled person can then come on the property without the dog.
And allergies and fear of animals are not valid reasons for denying access to a service dog, per the ADA.
Is it true you can just register your dog online as a service dog?
No. There are many websites that claim you can register your dog, by a vest or a patch and your dog is a service dog. Unless that dog is properly trained, that dog is not a service dog. A service dog shouldn't bark unless it is to alert the patient to something they need. They should be house broken. They should follow all handler commands. They shouldn't scratch or bite. They should almost be invisible, only active and visible when they need to be to work for their handler. Even if the dog was trained by the handler, and not by an organization, their training must be absolutely stellar and obvious.
Is there actually a problem with fake service dogs?
Finding statistics on documented fake service dogs are not easy. Faking a service dog is a federal crime, and now also a misdemeanor punishable with up to 60 days of jail time in Florida. Fake service dogs become a problem for people with real service dogs because these people face added discimination from businesses and individuals who have had bad experience. It can affect their access.
Some organizations, like Canine Companions for Independence, are looking for ways to work with The U.S. Justice Dept., and this may lead to a standard for service dogs. They've collected thousands of signatures on a petition to get the Justice Dept. to look into this. CCI said they are increasingly hearing complaints from their clients that they have been denied access to public places because business owners have had bad experiences with fake service dogs.
Is this new Florida law enforceable?
"That remains to be seen," said Martha Johnson, spokesperson for Canine Companions for Independence. "We sure hope so."
Johnson said at least two dozen other states have a similar long, and it has been enforceable in those states.
"I think what it really does is just build awareness and make someone think twice before they pass their dog off as a service dog when they're not," Johnson said.