Debate surrounds misclassification of service animals — who are working dogs, not pets

Carl Bessent and his guide dog Nerice in Coeur d’Alene. Carl is legally blind and is concerned about the growing problem of impostor or poorly trained service animals and the problems they create for legitimate service animals.
Carl Bessent and his guide dog Nerice in Coeur d’Alene. Carl is legally blind and is concerned about the growing problem of impostor or poorly trained service animals and the problems they create for legitimate service animals. kathypl@spokesman.com

Just about everywhere Carl Bessent goes, Nerice is at his side.

On walks around Coeur d’Alene, inside stores and restaurants and to the movies, the 7-year-old black Labrador retriever guides Bessent, a retired attorney who lost sight in one eye and went legally blind in the other as a newborn.

And almost everyone he encounters knows the law permits his trained service animal to accompany him in public. But what irritates Bessent these days is all the people who exploit the law and masquerade their pets as service animals.

“My guide dog had almost two years of training, and somebody just slaps a vest on their dog and says, ‘OK, it’s a service dog,’ ” Bessent said. “That’s an insult.”

We’ve all seen them: the woman with a trembling Chihuahua tucked in her arm as she peruses produce at the grocery store, or the man walking through the mall with a frisky puppy on a leash. In some cases those may be actual service dogs or ones in training. Or they might be impostors.

“People are pushing the boundaries, just like they do with anything,” said Linda Goodman, administrator of the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

Service animals are working animals, not pets, according to federal guidelines.

“The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability,” the U.S. Department of Justice says. “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Use of companion animals for well-being or comfort has grown much more common, but those animals are not trained to perform a task related to a disability, said Nancy Hill, regional director of SCRAPS, the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service.

“Yet these individuals often refer to their dogs as service dogs if asked,” Hill said. “Business owners are confused by what a service dog is and what questions they may ask.”

Mikelyn Ward is co-leader of the Spokane chapter of Puppies of Promise, a club that raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a leading training school.

“The law is pretty ambiguous in that it says the dog has to be trained to perform a task,” Ward said. “But it doesn’t say how you prove that dog is trained. … It doesn’t say a dog has to go through a certified school of any kind or professional trainers. And so people can just say what they want about the dog.”

She and other trainers working with the pups in public places run into supposed service dogs that seem to have little training or socialization.

“They will bark and growl at other dogs or at people. It’s a problem for us,” she said. “We are doing our best to follow the rules and be polite to people and make the presence of our dogs as un-invasive as we can. It’s annoying that our efforts are undermined by people that we’re pretty sure don’t have a service dog.”


People who pretend their dogs are trained service animals, or who mistakenly think their dogs fit the legal definition of one, are doing real damage, say advocates for people with disabilities. For one, they often disrupt the work of authentic service dogs.

Carl and Jeanette Bessent, who live in downtown Coeur d’Alene, recently visited a nearby art gallery. Inside, another couple had a pair of Yorkshire terriers that wore generic, red “service dog” vests — items one can easily order online. The dogs began barking at Nerice and one pulled away and ran toward her, distracting Nerice from her job.

“Clearly they are not legitimate service dogs,” Carl Bessent said.

A few days before that, the couple had a frightening encounter on a visit to a Green Bluff orchard that is open to the public. Two St. Bernards belonging to the owner attacked Nerice, Bessent said.

“She wrapped herself around me to protect me from the St. Bernards, and left herself completely exposed to be attacked,” he said. “She is trained to protect me. She is not trained to protect herself.”

Bessent helped fend off the growling and lunging dogs until an employee could restrain them. The farm’s owner told them his dogs were there to keep other dogs off his property.

“We tried to explain she is permitted to go anywhere by law,” said Jeanette Bessent. “He said, ‘This is my place, and I can have these dogs here.’ ”

The Bessents complained to SCRAPS, which is investigating the Green Bluff incident and researching what laws may apply.

Nerice was not hurt. But repeat encounters like that can ruin a guide dog, trainers say.

It happened to Robert White, a 45-year-old Navy veteran of the Gulf War who lives in Otis Orchards. He was blinded and developed post-traumatic stress disorder from his combat experience in the early 1990s, and a guide dog assists him with both conditions.

His first black Lab, Thayer, had to be retired early after several attacks by other dogs, including at the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown bus plaza and once by a pit bull aboard an STA bus, White said.

“He just wouldn’t work anymore. He wouldn’t get back on a bus,” he said.

White is on his second black Lab, named Neil, provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind. And the problems for him continue.

“Going into the stores and even on the buses, all these dogs that are barking and carrying on — they’re not well-mannered. People don’t try to rein their dogs back at all,” he said. “And sometimes it will be in a crosswalk where it’s a dangerous situation for me.”

After being subjected to repeated attacks, a guide dog can become highly distracted or even aggressive, “or it will be rendered so anxious it will not be able to perform around another dog. It will freeze up, it will break off its line, it won’t guide effectively,” said Marc Gillard, a licensed guide dog instructor and support center service specialist with Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The organization regularly receives feedback from clients who experience unnecessary burdens that stem from exploitation of service animal laws, Gillard said.

“That person may be given a really rough reception or be asked to provide documentation or evidence, which isn’t legal, because the (business) person has been burned before by illegitimate service animals,” he said.

White believes abuse of the service animal law is tainting the public’s perception of guide dogs and making his life more difficult.

“Some restaurants are even trying to refuse me service because they’ve had so many people come in with unruly dogs,” he said. “They just don’t want to see any of them.”


Other businesses, worried about crossing a line with the Americans with Disabilities Act, take a don’t-ask approach. Employees are told not to question customers about their animals, even if they suspect it’s not a trained service dog.

But business people do ask plenty of questions of Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst at the Washington Human Rights Commission.

“I get a lot of calls from business owners who have concerns about that issue,” Lindstrand said.

Some are skeptical about smaller dogs or certain breeds — and she informs them that those could be trained service animals. Others call in to ask what they should do about dogs that misbehave or relieve themselves in their place of business, or whose owners feed them table scraps in restaurants.

“A lot of businesses don’t know the law, they don’t know what questions they can ask, and they haven’t trained their employees in that area, so they’re very nervous,” Lindstrand said. “And especially with people who have fake service animals, the people will start saying, ‘You can’t ask me that question, I’m going to sue you,’ and then they get frightened because they’re being threatened.”

She sees plenty of uncertainty about what is and isn’t permitted, and not just from businesses.

“I think there’s some confusion on the part of some individuals who may be wanting to stretch the definition to include other kinds of pets or companion animals,” Goodman said.

At WinCo Foods, the Boise-based grocer, managers are aware of the two questions they may ask under the law, company spokesman Michael Read said.

“If the individuals say yes and come up with some kind of description of what the animal does, we don’t try to make a judgment on whether or not that seems plausible,” Read said. “But we’re pretty much handcuffed by the law, because that is really all that we can ask. So if they answer appropriately we allow their animal to remain in the store so long as it behaves and is housebroken.”

WinCo does not, however, allow dogs to be placed inside shopping carts. “There are people that try to push that boundary, but there is nothing under the law as we understand it that would require us to allow that practice,” Read said.

Spokane Transit Authority drivers and security guards sometimes will inquire about the service a dog performs for a passenger.

“We can’t pry beyond that because we would be violating people’s privacy rights, and so that’s the question we’re allowed to ask,” STA spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty said.

If the passenger says the dog is trained to assist them with a disability, “we consider that a service animal and they are allowed to board.”

Drivers can have any animal removed if it’s distracting the operation of the bus or displaying vicious behavior that poses a safety threat to riders. Drivers also should be alerted to any animal that threatens a service dog, he said.


Some think there should be a certification requirement or registry of legitimate service animals to remove any doubt.

“Right now no one has to show any proof that it’s a service dog,” said White, the Gulf War vet. “There needs to be some kind of certification, some guidelines.”

Bessent said he also favors mandatory certification to distinguish service animals from pets. He carries a card that identifies Nerice as a trained guide. “I always have that with me,” he said.

Nerice’s harness also carries the Guide Dogs for the Blind name.

Ward, from Puppies of Promise, favors additional regulation as well. If someone trains their service dog themselves, rather than through a reputable program, perhaps they could submit the dog to a board to certify it’s been properly trained and socialized, she said.

Florida is cracking down on fake service animals with a new law this year, pushed by the state’s restaurant industry, making it a second-degree misdemeanor to pass off an unqualified pet as a service animal. The offense is punishable with up to 60 days in jail and 30 hours of community service for an organization that services people with disabilities

No changes to service animal laws are in the works in Idaho or Washington, state officials say. But a deterrent such as Florida’s or a registry of trained animals are worth considering, said Lindstrand, with the Washington Human Rights Commission.

“It would certainly make my job easier if there was a certification process,” she said. “If we could figure out a way to fund it without it being a detriment to persons with disabilities, it certainly sounds like a good idea.”

The two questions

The law permits two questions to be asked of anyone who brings an animal into a store, office or other public place:

1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

“It’s just two questions. It’s not hard to remember,” said Linda Goodman with the Idaho Human Rights Commission. “If someone comes in with a snake around their neck and they say this is my service animal, you know it’s not. It’s not a dog; we’re done.”

What is a service animal?

Under federal law, a service animal is a dog or miniature horse trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. That includes guiding the blind, assisting the deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting someone having a seizure, reminding a person with a mental illness to take medication, and calming someone with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack. Most are dogs, but a few people use miniature horses because of dog allergies, fear of dogs or the animal’s longer lifespan.

Where are they allowed?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxis, theaters, concert halls and sports venues, are required to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are allowed. The ADA trumps any state or local laws, include health regulations.