People coming to the RI Hospitality Association’s office will oftentimes be met at the door by my small, 10 year old rescue dog, Aiden. He spends most of his day sitting on a chair, occasionally taking a tour around our pet-friendly office to visit my coworkers. However, as well behaved and beloved as Aiden is, he is not a service dog, nor do I misrepresent that he is anything but a much-loved, very spoiled companion.
Unfortunately, there are a growing number of people who are misrepresenting their family pet or emotional support animal as a service animal to gain access to public places. This has severe unintended consequences for businesses and people with legitimate service animals.
The American with Disabilities Act requires all places open to the public, such as businesses, government agencies and entertainment venues, to give access to service animals and their owners. This is an essential tool for people with disabilities to be able to navigate public spaces.
The ADA doesn’t require service animals be registered, carry any type of certification or wear a special uniform. Only dogs and miniature ponies are considered service animals. Emotional support animals, although playing an important role in many people’s lives, are not covered under the ADA and can legally be denied access to public places.
Given all of these complexities, it’s understandable that someone might not understand the damage they are doing when they misrepresent their beloved dog as a service animal, however the damage cannot be understated.
It compromises the ability of real service animals to do their job – placing the safety of the animal and the person depending on the animal at risk. A service animal is trained to be in public, under the control of their handlers and intense training ensure that the animal is focused on their job and is unobtrusive as possible. They won’t bark (unless required as part of their job), won’t jump on people or other dogs, beg for food or other behaviors that many pets (including my dog Aiden) might do.
It also compromises the legitimacy of the program, because it causes confusion and frustration in the public about what a real service animal and the important job they do. The RI Food Code bans live animals (other than service animals) in a food establishment. If a non-service dog is in a restaurant or hotel, the company could get in trouble with the Department of Health.
Recently, a bill was introduced in the RI General Assembly by Representative Winfield and Senator Picard that would prohibit people from misrepresenting an untrained dog as a service animal. Nineteen other states have already passed similar legislation. We hope Rhode Island soon joins the list of states that are working to protect the rights of Rhode Islanders and their service animals.
Sarah Bratko, Esq. is the legal counsel for the RI Hospitality Association, located in Cranston and is a resident of Warwick.