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Crossing the Line from Pet to Service Animal
August 2, 2014
Source: USA Today
Many fliers avoid airline fees by misrepresenting their pet dogs as service animals, giving legitimate service animal owners a bad reputation.
Frequent business travelers and at least one airline say they have noticed an uptick in the number of service dogs in aircraft cabins, raising questions for others as to whether a number of dogs that are truly pets are being passed off as service dogs.
Such fliers do not want keep their dogs in a carrier case in the cabin or aim to avoid paying a fee for their pets, says Jeanne Hampl of the Assistance Dog Club of Puget Sound in Gig Harbor, Wash.
"There is so much fraud out there," says Hampl, secretary of the club, which helps members train service animals. "People do it all the time — say it is a service dog when it is not — and create so many access problems for people with legitimate service animals."
People with a legitimate need for a service dog may include individuals who are blind, paraplegics, amputees and others with "visible disabilities," but travelers with "invisible" disabilities — such as hearing or emotional problems, diabetes or seizures — may also need them, Hampl says.
Department of Transportation regulations require airlines to allow service dogs on flights without charge.
According to the regulations, passengers are permitted to board a flight with a service dog — other than one for emotional or psychiatric support — by presenting an airline with written documentation or providing "credible verbal assurances" that the dog is needed for a disability.
Airlines, the rules say, can limit service dogs for emotional and psychiatric support to passengers "with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder." Airlines may require such passengers to provide documentation from a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey says the agency "has received some anecdotal reports of passengers traveling with service animals who appeared to some observers to have no disability."
Harvey cautions that "many disabilities are hidden, and passengers are not required "to prove the legitimacy of their need for a service animal to other passengers."
Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, says the use of service dogs "has expanded dramatically over the years." Service dogs "can help their owners function more effectively in life and in the workplace" and gain access to airplanes and other places "they could not otherwise navigate."
George Hurden, a USA TODAY Road Warrior, who volunteers travel information, says he has seen service animals on four of the 16 flights he has flown this year.
"I have seen some very healthy and capable-looking people with dogs in tow on flights and in airport lounges," says Hurden, who lives in Cheshire, Conn., and works in the plastics industry.
Some dogs traveling as service animals were "lap-sized" and appeared to be pets, he says.
"I have no problem with service dogs being able to travel with their owners," Hurden says. "They tend to be very well-behaved and mild-mannered." Road Warrior Sally Smoczynski of Burr Ridge, Ill., is glad that service dogs enable their owners to fly and "be more independent."
Sometimes, though, she sees an owner "with no visible disability" accompanied by a small dog and wonders whether the animal is a legitimate service dog. Smoczynski, who works in the information security industry, says she has learned to not make a quick judgment.
"I have learned that being disabled and needing the use of a service animal does not require a physical disability," she says. "I work a lot in the Washington metro area where a lot of veterans and others suffer from crippling anxieties. These wonderfully trained dogs provide a great service."
JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young says the airline has seen an increase in emotional support and service animals on its flights but has not noticed an increase of fliers trying to misrepresent their pets as service animals.
Lee Shannon, a real estate agent In Park City, Utah, says she has "several times" seen people — including two she has traveled with — misrepresenting pets as service animals.
"It is a pet peeve of mine," she says.
Shannon says the people she traveled with were not trying to save money. They are pet lovers who simply wanted their dogs next to them or on their lap. Saving money may be a motivation for many others.
"For most who try to falsely represent their animals as service dogs," Hampl says, "it is to save money."
WHAT IT COSTS
Airline fees for a dog in the passenger cabin and in the cargo hold on one-way domestic flights:
American Airlines: $125 cabin; $175 cargo hold
Delta Air Lines: $125; $200
Southwest Airlines: $95; dogs not allowed in cargo hold
United Airlines: $125; $189-$549, depending on weight of dog
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