Is the era of bogus "support animals" coming to an end?

If you travel at all, particularly by plane, or even regularly go out shopping or to dinner, you’ve probably seen it yourself. Somebody with a dog (usually) wearing one of those vests that say “Service Animal” or in some cases “Support Animal.” (Those are very different things as we’ll get to shortly.) But have you ever found yourself suspecting that maybe the animal wasn’t any sort of medically required and properly trained helper at all, but simply the person’s pet? I know I have, particularly when the beast is particularly poorly behaved and causing problems. But you hate to say anything because some people really are facing challenges which a service animal can alleviate. Others, however, are just perpetrating a fraud to get special treatment.

Now, as NBC News reports this week, the days of people pulling scams like this may be coming to an end. Multiple states have put new laws in place punishing those who engage in this sort of fraud. But nailing down the suspects is more complicated than it sounds at first.

Move over, Rover. Your time in the grocery store, the movie theater and pizza parlor is running out.

Twenty-one states have in recent months mounted a major crackdown down on people who falsely claim their pets as service and support animals so they can bring them into restaurants, theaters and other public places where Fido and Fluffy aren’t typically allowed — and the movement has picked up speed in the last few weeks.

Last month, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, signed into law a bill making it illegal for people to misrepresent their pets as service animals, under which pet-loving perps are subject to a $100 fine and a misdemeanor charge. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a nearly identical bill, under which those who “fraudulently misrepresent” service animals can be fined $250.

Admittedly, a $100 or even $250 dollar fine with nothing much of a police record probably isn’t the biggest deterrent in the world, but it’s a start. Still, at least in the case of air travel (which is federally regulated), wouldn’t we want to consider some sort of national effort on this front? It could start with the websites with phony “certification” programs where you fill out a few online questions and get a letter saying that your pet is a “support animal” you need to move about in public.

That’s a second key distinction which the NBC article makes and seems to confuse a lot of business owners. The term “service animal” is very specific and such animals have to undergo extensive training to be qualified. On the other hand, “Support Animal” doesn’t really mean anything and isn’t recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If someone shows up with a “Support Animal” the airlines don’t have to let them bring it on, nor do restaurants, theaters or any other businesses have to admit the animal or the owner. But too many of them don’t seem to be aware of the distinction and we wind up with Support Peacocks sitting next to us on the plane.

Look, I love my dog too and I’d be thrilled to be able to take him on the plane with me even if I had to buy a second ticket. I also think air travel stinks. But that’s the way of the world right now and you’re not special unless you are legitimately disabled and have a fully trained service animal who won’t cause problems for other people. Being nervous or lonely without your handbag size dog is not a disability. Keep your pet at home like everyone else or transport them properly.