You've probably seen one in a restaurant, grocery store, courthouse or coffee shop. You might have asked yourself: "Is that really a service dog? That person doesn't look disabled. I should say something." Don't be too quick to wag your finger, shake your head or make a snide remark.
Service dogs are specially trained to help disabled people function in their homes and in public. But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require that they wear a sign or brightly colored vest, as commonly thought.
"When a person attempts to enter a business with a dog, there are only two questions that can be asked," explained Paula Scott, with the non-profit Pet Partners
of Bellevue. "Number one: is that a service animal? and number two: what task does it perform for you?"
Service animals can be trained for many things, such as detecting low blood-sugar, sensing an oncoming seizure or assisting during a seizure, according to Scott. They can retrieve objects, summon help, even dial 9-1-1 on special phones.
If the dog poses no threat, it must be allowed anywhere the public can go, even if dogs are otherwise banned, according to the ADA.
Scott says service animals are now limited to dogs and mini-horses, probably because people were abusing the definition.
"And there were monkeys and some people even were claiming that snakes and other reptiles were their service animals."
While there are just two recognized service animals, there are many invisible disabilities that can benefit from their help.
"Including psychiatric disabilities, so you can't assume-- like a lot of people do-- if a person isn't in a wheelchair, doesn't have a cane, they're not disabled," said Scott.
Among the inivisible disabilities: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Iraq war veteran John George was given the options of medication or a service dog to help him cope with his PTSD. He found "Alfie." George made a video
as part of his role as service dog education coordinator for the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs.
"I'm able to do so much now because of having Alfie in my life. I don't have to avoid public places or avoid crowds anymore."
Paula Scott's non-profit organization focuses on "therapy animals," which are often used in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and senior centers. They can include cats, rabbits, llamas, potbellied pigs, even rats. They register about 11,000 therapy animals in the U.S. But, unlike "service dogs," they're not protected by the ADA.
"A lot of people believe that, erroneously. They believe that if they become registered with Pet Partners and they get the Pet Partners therapy animal vest, that they can go anywhere and that's not true," said Scott. There are some legal protections for people who use animals that are not service dogs. The Fair Housing Act and the Federal Aviation Administration through the Air Carrier Access Act offer protections for people with therapy dogs, assistance animals or emotional support animals. Landlords cannot discriminate but they are allowed to ask for documentation that the animal is an assistance animal and the owner can be required to produce certification from a professional service dog trainer or a doctor's note stating the need for the animal. A landlord with a no pets policy cannot require a deposit or deny housing to a person with an assistance dog but the landlord can charge a cleaning or damage assessment.
Sadly, some people do pass off their pets as service dogs.
"Shame on them and unfortunately what it will likely do in the future, and this is just my personal guess, is that the law will get stricter in the future and certification will be required," she said.