Written by: Heather Clemenceau
…..was the title of a recent (but hastily deleted) article by New York City dog trainer Anna Jane Grossman. With equal parts delusion, narcissism, and fakery, Ms. Grossman set about describing the deceptive tactics she uses to take her Yorkipoo Amos, who is certainly cute but is not a service dog, to places generally accessible only by service animals.
Grossman, whose food of life appears to be attention, suggests that her motivation lies in requests by her clients at the “School For The Dogs,” who asked how they could bring their dogs to visit in hospitals, or restaurants, and travel on planes. She asserts that this might be the beginning of a movement to “stop segregating dogs based on their owner’s disabilities, and instead look at the dog’s abilities.”
Ms. Grossman also acknowledged having a friend create a fake service dog ID, and she went on to use that fake ID when questioned by shop owners about Amos’ status as a service dog. In a dispute with a tax driver, Grossman was further emboldened by the fact that she was able to get the police to side with her. (I hope she thinks long and hard about the fact that she called the police out on a frivolous complaint against an innocent person in order to perpetuate her falsity).
“It’s a good thing the cop knew that the Americans With Disabilities Act precluded him from asking what my disability was. That’s because I don’t have one.”
Boom! But the karma train pulled rather quickly into the station, and there was an astounding backlash against Grossman for her deception. In a move that was the opposite of shocking, she issued a stirring non-apology and quickly deleted the post from Medium.com. For a few days the Google cache remained available, and then it too was gone. However, an astute individual made a YouTube video of the post.
Grossman certainly isn’t the only unrepentant person to have created an online shit-storm by confessing to using a pretend service animal. Outrage followed the story of New Yorkers Brett David and Kate Vlasovskaya, who were featured in the New York Post. Both David and Vlasovskaya boasted about using fake ID cards and service vests to gain admittance into movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, Whole Foods, Starbucks, etc. They merely explained it away as something that’s “becoming more popular now.”
I know that some people reading this are wondering aloud now, what can be wrong with this “crime?” Where do we actually draw the line of pushing our dogs into no-access spaces? After all, most people doing this sort of thing just want to spend more time with their dogs, or they want to avoid having to check them as “baggage” on a plane (an issue I can definitely relate to, knowing that pets kept in the hold of a plane have gone long periods without water, gotten lost, arrived dead, or escaped on the runway). While the sentiment to allow our dogs in more public spaces is not unreasonable, the method Grossman and others have used is ethically challenged. I also believe that there’s something profoundly disturbing about professionals who counsel their clients to become practiced liars at the expense of others.
An increasing number of fakers have embraced the bogus service dog movement, which essentially requires one to pretend to have a disability. People with no disabilities or serious psychiatric disorders are buying fake service or therapy dog tags and vests online. While all dogs provide emotional support to us in one way or another, the designation of emotional support dog is only applicable to animals who have been “prescribed” by a licensed mental health professional. If you have the money, it’s not difficult to obtain a letter from an online mental health professional stating that one needs their pet as an “emotional support animal,” even though the professional has never treated the “patient” personally. Airlines such as Air Canada have taken to discouraging such one-time diagnoses, by requiring the person with the ESA to present a letter dated within the last six months, from a mental health practitioner who is currently treating the patient, and who has diagnosed them with a condition present in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association) and restricting access to dogs only.
Not only is it bad form to use a fake assistance animal, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to take advantage of privileges reserved for those who genuinely need the assistance of such animals. In the United States, the ADA defines a person with a disability as “…a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.”
In Canada, the Human Rights Code of Ontario (where I live) defines a disability as “…any degree of physical disability, infirmity,malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device.”
The reality is that the entire service animal community suffers as this trend increases, because business owners, gatekeepers, and the general public are growing increasingly skeptical of assistance animals, and are likely to hold human/animal teams to a lower standard of behaviour if they simply act like any other pet. The act of misrepresenting a pet as a service animal is one of the primary factors that are responsible for the prevalence of access challenges to the disabled. Those with service dogs should never be put in the position of arguing with a gatekeeper in order to gain access to buildings and services.
Advocates of both pets and the disabled are divided as to how to police those who abuse service animal privileges, and some are calling for government to better regulate and enforce service animal rules around the country. Groups and individuals who train service or therapy animals do not want their efforts to be meaningless, nor do they need the general public to make assumptions that helper animals are poorly behaved. There seems to be a general consensus that certified animals should be required to be trained by an accredited facility. Or, at the very least, what is needed is a single-source visible identification for service/therapy animals, which is clear to business owners, transit staff, and landlords that the animal is actually certified (along with serious penalties for those who ignore the absolute rights of the disabled).
Guide and service dogs are lifelines for their owners – in order to have a bona-fide service dog, one must be disabled within the definition of the law. Service dogs are not pets. They:
- Are individually trained to perform work for a disabled person, and their skill relates directly to the nature of the individual’s disability
- May alert people who are deaf, having a seizure, reminding people to take medications, calming people with PTSD or anxiety attacks, or other duties.
- Receive many hours of socialization and temperament testing.
- Are assessed for 18 to 24 months to see if they have the right temperament and abilities to be placed with a person in need.
- Are typically breeds that are naturally well-mannered and even-tempered. Breeds classified as livestock guardians or fighting dogs can have aggression-related breed traits that can be problematic
- Receive learning appropriate behaviour in a wide variety of public environments.
- Are usually raised for the role of a service dog since puppyhood.
The worst case scenario of an access challenge, despite its illegality, is one that is not resolved quickly and to the benefit of the disabled person. The Walt Disney Company felt compelled to change its disabled guest policy at theme parks in 2013 partly due to “abuse of the system.” The announcement came after reports surfaced that wealthy guests were paying wheelchair-riding tour guides top dollar so that the group could use the line-skipping privileges granted to the disabled at Disney theme parks. The Toronto Star recently reported on a shocking situation where two blind women were utterly humiliated and threatened with handcuffing by the police when they declined to muzzle their guide dogs on a Jet Airways flight out of Toronto.
We live in a generation of scammers who flash fake I.D.s, able-bodied adults who use handicapped placards on their vehicles, and grocery customers who try to slip too many items into the express lane. Running fake service dog ID websites might also classify you as a grifter. Certifications have become less meaningful too – even the Long Island Medium, who pretends to talk to dead people, has been a “certified” medium for over 10 years! Proof that you can certify anything…..
While more understanding of accessibility legislation overall is needed, we still must have integrity in the system and make an effort to ensure the right accesses for individuals with their certified dogs, while safeguarding the public with high training standards.
Canine Companions for Independence has introduced a pledge to protect the rights of people who legitimately need service dogs – please consider signing!