Federal and state laws have eased public access and protections for service dogs and other highly trained animals that people with disabilities rely on for physical assistance or emotional support. But activist Nat Dean of Santa Fe says a rising number of people passing off their pets as service animals is creating problems.
While service animals are trained to quietly remain alert and under their owner’s control in the face of environmental distractions, “fake” service dogs that don’t have such training pose a risk to both people and other animals, she said.
The New Mexico Service Animal Act makes it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine to use a pet to impersonate a service animal. In addition, under the New Mexico law known as Bella’s Bill, owners of an uncontrolled animal that interferes with or injures a working animal could be required to pay related medical, retraining or replacement costs for the animal.
There are two types of support animals — those trained to perform a task to mitigate a person’s disability and can, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, accompany people with disabilities wherever they go, and those used for comfort, known as emotional support animals, which don’t have specific task-related training or public access rights.
Under the Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities may request what is called a “reasonable accommodation” to a landlord’s ban on pets. But an emotional support animal is not afforded the same public access as a fully trained service animal.
The Air Carrier Access Act also requires air carriers to allow emotional support or psychiatric service animals aboard if the passenger presents “credible verbal assurance” or documentation that verifies the medical necessity of traveling with the animal.
Increasingly, comfort animals are being allowed in public places, particularly on public transportation. And this raises concerns, Dean said, because not all of these animals are properly trained.
“A trained service animal has the ability to be seen and not heard ... when parked under the table at a restaurant or under the handler’s feet on a plane, train or bus, and has the ability to wait quietly yet remain alert through long appointments, meetings, classes, worship services and all of the other things we humans often take for granted,” Dean said.
The Albuquerque City Council recently approved a six-month pilot program that allows animals for comfort, companionship and protection for the vulnerable on all buses. The animals may ride city buses with owners if they are leashed and muzzled or in carriers at all times.
“Despite the good intentions of City Council to open city transit to pet owners, the resolution may not only endanger working animals, but even more so it could open up potential liability should an altercation occur, resulting in injury to any animal or human,” Dean said.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center, 800-949-4232. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.