Photos courtesy of Angela Jackson-Brunning, a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) volunteer.
If you do a quick Google search on how to license your pet as a service animal, you’ll find dozens of sites offering registrations for a small fee (usually less than $100). The thing is—there’s no such registration legally recognized by authorities.
However, local stakeholders feel that a form of licensing for service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) could help provide legitimacy of the animals’ abilities, help staff better differentiate between service dogs and ESAs and, most importantly, prevent potentially dangerous occurrences.
A research study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that petting animals creates a hormonal response in humans that can aid depression. Results indicated that humans’ levels of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that controls pain-perception, the sleep-wake cycle and mood—rise dramatically after interacting with an animal, specifically dogs.
Margeaux Hamrock, owner of HAUS Hair Society in Long Beach, brings her dog Mustard to the salon to help aid her social anxiety. Mustard is very attentive to Hamrock’s needs. She knows some basic commands and never leaves Hamrock’s side unless permitted. Sometimes, Hamrock will allow clients to hold Mustard in their laps while they wait or are in the process of getting their hair done.
“She’s really used to being around lots of different people,” Hamrock said. “Every day, she probably sits on six or seven different laps, and the response I have with clients with her is so awesome. Everyone is just so relaxed. […]It does really help people feel comfortable, not just me.”
Photo by Ariana Gastelum of Mustard.
Though the American Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes mental and emotional illnesses that meet the criteria of a disability, emotional support animals (ESA), whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support, are not permitted the same public access rights given to service dogs.
Many individuals are, sometimes unknowingly, registering their animals through fraudulent websites that claim any animal can be a service animal and buying packages including animal identification cards, certificates, vests and more to convince the public to believe that their animals are allowed in pet-unfriendly settings.
The animals who lack sufficient training in these types of environments, if not properly handled, are more likely to misbehave, damage property and harm another person or legitimate service animal, which could ultimately lead to devastating consequences.
“When they behave badly, they are putting people who actually need these dogs in a position where they’re going to experience discrimination,” Angela Jackson-Brunning, a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) volunteer, told the Post. “Because of lack of information, [staff] will deny these people access to their businesses. That’s just not fair.”
The ADA defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
The federal government’s definition of a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” has a record of such impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.
Examples of service dogs’ tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medication, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack and more.
Psychiatric service animals are specific type of service dogs who are trained to assist their handler with a psychiatric disability. Their function is not to provide emotional support, but to perform tasks such as reminding the handler to take medication, retrieving objects, guiding the handler from stressful situations or acting as a brace if the handler becomes dizzy.
In other words, all types of service dogs function as a medical device, not a pet.
State and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public are not allowed to ask for official documentation or personal information regarding the owner’s disability. In fact, service dogs are not required to wear a vest while servicing their owners.
The ADA permits staff to ask only two questions:
Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of their facilities. Unless the dog is not housebroken or is out of the handler’s control, staff are allowed to ask them to leave, but they must offer the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
Angela Jackson-Brunning and her trainee, Wahini.
Staff are allowed to request documentation for ESAs or service animals from handlers when travelling. For service animals, it is not generally required unless the carrier has reason to doubt the animal is trained to perform, according to the Air Carrier Access Act. Currently, there are no specific guidelines from the ADA to help identify the difference between ESAs and service animals.
ESAs are permitted on planes if the passenger possesses a letter that is less than a year old from a licensed mental health professional that states the person has a mental health related disability, the presence of the animal is necessary to the passenger’s health or treatment, and the passenger is under his or her care.
This letter only verifies that the person’s condition needs an animal. It does not include information identifying the boarding ESA or its abilities.
Cal State Long Beach takes a similar approach regarding public access for ESAs. Handlers are required to submit a request to Disabled Student Services, providing a letter with the same information. This grants them access to classrooms and dorms, but they are still not allowed in the library or food areas, according to CSULB Coordinator of Service and Emotional Support Animals Rachel Mahgerefteh. Service dogs are recommended to be registered but not required.
In addition, therapy animals, who go with their owners to volunteer in school, hospital and nursing-home settings, are also not recognized by the ADA. They rely on an agreement between their designated organization and their desired location to be allowed access.
Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is a coalition of nonprofit service dog organizations, purposed to improve the training, placement and utilization of service dogs; improve staff and volunteer education; educate the public about assistance dogs and advocate for legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with service dogs.
ADI does not train or provide service dogs, but it does offer a search for nearby ADI-accredited service dog organizations, which are regularly assessed to meet the appropriate standards of assisted-dog programs.
Photo of Lariat, a trainee of Angela Jackson-Brunning.
CCI, an ADI-member organization, puts its dogs through an approximate three-year training process that starts eight weeks after they’re born.
Jackson-Brunning has raised two CCI dogs for the first two years of their training. Her responsibilities include caring for them, teaching them commands, enrolling them in obedience classes and exposing them to different environments.
“By the time they are done with all their training, they’re worth $50,000,” Jackson-Brunning said. “And then you’ve got these people who are just going out and paying $79 online, and they’re getting their little fake ID-card and fake certificate and fake vest. It’s just disrespectful, and it belittles the amount of work that we put into these dogs.”
The process to obtaining a service dog could take approximately two to three years or as long as it would take to train the dog to fulfill the specific needs of a person with a disability.
Individuals applying are thoroughly interviewed, and organizations likely contact their doctors and get their recommendations as well to verify if they would benefit from a service dog’s assistance, Jackson-Brunning explained. CCI does not charge for the dogs they provide.
“I do think some sort of a licensing, almost like how a driver’s license is obtained, I think there should be some sort of database that way,” she said. “The ADA was written with the intention of protecting the disabled individual’s’ privacy, but because of that, it’s allowed a lot of loopholes, and unscrupulous people take advantage of that.”
Marion Dog County Control in Salem, Oregon issues a diamond-shaped gold tag for service dogs. This form of licensing makes it easier for the public to identify the animals as legitimate and does not require individuals to carry documentation, themselves.
There has been no action taken to change the current ADA policy, according to an ADA specialist.
Some state and local laws define service animals more broadly than the ADA does. The City of Long Beach strictly follows ADA’s definition.
“The City of Long Beach makes every effort to follow all applicable city, state and federal ADA rules,” Public Affairs Officer Kerry Gerot told the Post. “Per the City Charter, the City Council sets policy, and we do not provide an opinion either way regarding the effects of any policy in general, nor do we speculate on possible advantages or disadvantages.”
Courtyard by Marriott in Downtown Long Beach allows both service dogs and ESAs in the hotel. Staff experience more issues with the owners than their ESAs, according to Chief Engineer Edgar Espinosa, who previously worked in a pet-friendly hotel.
Assistant General Manager Tammy Teague believes that animals only act out because their owners didn’t teach them how to behave, she told the Post.
“It’s never the animal’s fault,” she said. “It’s always the person who has raised the animal or treated the animal to react in a certain way.”
Teague added that she would feel more comfortable seeing a form of certification that acknowledges an animal is at least housebroken and acclimated to public settings.
“If you insist on taking that animal in public and in crowded situations that can make any animal or human antsy, is that animal going to be able to handle it without hurting somebody?” Teague said. “So, a server wouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘May I see your card?’ because it means something, and that person should not be offended. […]You need the dog. The dog needs you. That’s great. I have no problem with that as long as you’re both respectful of my space and my people and my building.”