Why does everyone, all-of-a-sudden, have a service dog?

A Maine woman was booted from an airline this week allegedly because the airline suspected that she might be not really have a legitimate service animal.  In this case, the passenger happened to be blind and had a seeing eye dog.

This  story hit home with me.  No, I’m not blind or disabled.  But I am in an industry where people try to pass their pets as emotional support animals all the time.  I own several vacation rental properties and, up until last year, have always allowed dogs in the rentals.  However, last summer, after my husband and I tallied up all of the costs to repair the destruction of our home (carpets damaged, pee soaked into grout, door frames chewed, furniture ruined), we sadly decided to change our policy to a no-pet one.  Immediately, it seemed, after we made this change in policy, EVERYONE who owned a dog suddenly wanted to stay at our properties.  And when we told potential guests that we no longer allowed animals, that pet instantly became an emotional support animal. From the amount of inquiries that I’ve fielded, it seems like every person who owns a ‘comfort’ animal suddenly wants to take a vacation in Maine.

So, what exactly are the rules about service animals, assistance animals, comfort animals and therapy animals?  The rules are extremely confusing. First of all… the animals are not considered pets.  They are animals to serve a purpose, to do a job.

According to the ADA National Network, the difference between a service animal and other designations is described as:

“A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.

Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”

Reading the maine.gov website, the rules here in Maine seem a little more stringent.  According to the maine.gov website,  the Maine Human Rights Act was modified slightly in July 2016.  It has added a category of animal assistance animal.  Under this definition, an animal can be an assistance animal if it meets the following criteria:

  •  An animal that has been determined necessary to mitigate the effects of a physical or mental disability by a physician, psychologist, physician assistant, nurse practitioner or licensed social worker; or
  • An animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical or mental disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to intruders or sounds, providing reasonable protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair or retrieving dropped items.

In Maine, service animals, but not assistance animals, must be allowed anywhere the public is allowed.  In addition, both service AND assistance animals must be allowed in all housing situations.

Business owners are allowed to ask only two questions about the animal.

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

It’s a sticky situation if the animal’s purpose is not obvious.

And with those often confusing descriptions, the system is ripe with fraud.

Just in the past few weeks, I’ve come across several times that the law has been misused.  And I can’t believe that so many people are okay about talking about it in public.  Would they be so forthcoming if they had just shoplifted?

I belong to an online Facebook group for people looking for temporary housing and a member had posted that it was extremely hard to find housing with her dog.  I was floored at the numerous suggestions from other members of the group.  Simple fix, they said.  Just go online and get your dog certified as an assistance animal and no landlord can refuse you.  Sure, there were a few people chiming in, saying it was unethical to do so, but the majority of the group seemed to think this was an awesome idea.

Then last week, a colleague of mine was contacted by an upcoming guest coming to town for a wedding and was renting her vacation home for a week.  The guest informed my colleague that she would be bringing her assistance dog.  But, she assured my colleague, the dog will never be alone.  The dog will be accompanying the guest all week except on the wedding day and the day before.  During those two days, the dog will be boarded at a local kennel so the guest can attend the pre-wedding and wedding festivities.  Huh?  (Are you shaking your head, too?)  This woman has a severe enough disability that she needs to bring an “assistance animal” with her… but conveniently can make due without him for a few days if it suits her.

Finally, a ‘friend of a friend’  on Facebook brags that when she travels, she aways brings her dog with her (and this is no small pup).  When asked how she does this, she states (online…for the world to see)  that she bought a certificate on-line to have him certified as an emotional support animal. (“Wink, wink”).  After all, ‘Snookums gives me emotional support”. (But doesn’t everyone’s pet give them emotional support and comfort?)

Lest I get angry emails telling me that I don’t know what it’s like to have a disability and need an animal, I DO get it.  I understand that many people legitimately need a service dog and even a comfort animal.  Its the folks who actually need the service animals, like the one in the news this week, who will suffer from people cheating the system.

I have two children of my own who both have disabilities (and one who brings her chicken everywhere she is allowed without her being classified as an official assistance chicken).  We travel. We go through the hassles of owning pets.  This summer, we were going to take advantage of the early-bird rates for the Cat Ferry (check them out if you haven’t, by the way) and take the Cat from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  I had just about clicked on the ‘buy now’ button, when I remembered that our two pups would be accompanying us.  Dogs are allowed on the Cat, but they have to remain either in the car or in the kennel in the hold of the ship for the entire (approximately six hour) crossing.  I couldn’t bear putting our two dogs in a cage for six hours, so now we are going to make the trip via car — 24 hours round trip in an automobile with two teens and two dogs (vs. 12 hours round trip on a cruise ship).  It would have been easier to get them certified as assistance animals — two kids with disabilities, two dogs… easy…and have them join us on deck.  But what kind of person would do that?  Unfortunately, there seem to be many of those kinds of people these days.

So what am I going to do in my rental houses?  I’m pretty laid back — if someone says they are bringing a service dog, therapy dog, assistance or comfort dog, whatever, I will allow it even if I question it.  But sometimes I really wonder how people can sleep at night.  Is it really worth it?

Maria Lamb

About Maria Lamb

Maria is the owner of Wicked Awesome Maine Vacation Rentals based in beautiful Washington County, Maine.