Check Your Faux Service Dog at the Door

Seattle’s leading anti-animal rights activist turns her attention to tightening the leash on service dogs.

Ellen Taft’s counterintuitive take on animal rights took root many years ago in Minnesota, where, as a 31-year-old grad student, she was violently mauled by a pair of neighborhood dogs. Taft was subsequently successful in having her attackers euthanized before moving to Seattle, where, she says, “dogs have immense social privilege.” Here, she successfully helped close an off-leash area at Volunteer Park, which is near her Capitol Hill home.

While Taft has taken stands opposing the legalization of pot-bellied pigs and pygmy goats as domestic pets, screwing with the rights of canines is her true passion (see John Metcalfe’s “Pygmy Goats: Not In My Neighborhood,” SW, 9/26/07). Now, as a founding member of Families and Dogs Against Fighting Breeds (FDAFB), she is appealing to the United States Department of Justice to dramatically tighten the standards for what service dogs are and who can make use of them (the DOJ is currently conducting a formal review of certain ADA standards, and is accepting public input through mid-August). In particular, Taft wants all service dogs to be publicly registered and clad in easily identifiable vests, and wants certain “fighting breeds”—namely pit bulls—to be barred from being used in legally protected capacities of assistance. She also wants the authorities to come down hard on people who fraudulently claim to be using service dogs just to get their pet into a restaurant or store, something Taft claims to have witnessed in abundance.

“There are many types of bogus service dogs,” she says. “Basically all [a dog owner] has to do is claim it’s a service dog. And the store owners are petrified of being sued.”

When the American Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, it devoted scant, vague language to service animals, which are guaranteed accommodation alongside their owners in any venue, public or private, that humans are granted access to. Since then, the woebegone notion of golden retrievers serving as seeing-eye dogs for the blind has expanded to multiple conditions, breeds, and even species, to the point where one of the main thrusts of the DOJ’s proposed tightening is to restrict—no bullshit—the use of service iguanas, snakes, and horses, among other creatures.

The ADA does not require state-sanctioned training or registration of service animals, and did not go at great length into what afflictions, physical and otherwise, would justify a citizen’s use of one. The ADA also effectively disabled more stringent local regulations concerning service dogs, such as Washington’s White Cane Laws. Consequently, Americans now abide by a federal service-animal law currently vague enough to drive a truck—or at least a horse—through, with “just take their word for it” being the practical standard that quashes any suspicion of fraud.

“We give people the benefit of the doubt,” says Seattle Police Department spokesperson Mark Jamieson. “Merchants have the right to refuse service to people, but [if they’re alleged to have violated someone’s civil rights], that would be a civil claim. The best we could do is document both sides of the story and let the lawyers and courts sort it out.”

“I think [the current service-dog regulations] are pretty laissez-faire,” adds Seattle Animal Shelter spokesperson Don Jordan. “You look at the federal statutes on this, and there isn’t any training requirement. And a person’s disability is such a wide-ranging possibility that someone could claim service-animal status for a condition that may not be evident to the human eye. I get calls from business owners quite frequently, and my advice is that if [a patron] is claiming it’s a service animal, you might want to allow them into your establishment. I think business owners should play it safe in this regard.”

Jordan’s is a sentiment echoed by the City of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, which in 2007 completed investigations of 10 instances in which service-dog owners alleged to have not been properly accommodated. On its Web site, the Office states that “Current law asks people to assume the sincerity of their customers.” Meanwhile, King County Metro allows service and small dogs to board its buses for free, whereas larger dogs that cannot fit on a passenger’s lap are supposed to be charged full adult fare. However, if there is a question as to whether a large dog is a legitimate service dog, Metro spokesperson Linda Thielke says, “Bus drivers are instructed just to believe the customer and let it ride free.”

But what really gnaws at Taft is the preponderance of dogs in establishments serving food or drink. Legally, places such as this are only permitted to allow animals indoors if they are service animals, but there is no shortage of scofflaws about town.

“I stay away from all cafes, restaurants, and grocery stores where there are so-called service dogs,” says Taft. “[And] when I see a pit bull, I just leave.”

Mike Seaward is no dog-hater, but when a canine enters the Roosevelt Trader Joe’s, which he manages, he views it as a surefire opportunity to piss someone off. When he asks a customer if his or her dog is a service animal, he or she tends to get huffy. And if he or his employees don’t inquire, and a non-service dog saunters into the produce aisle undetected, his store is liable to be cited for a health-code violation.

“We’ve had, like, 300 incidents when we’ve had to address people, and they get upset. That’s the key issue: They get upset,” says Seaward, foreshadowing a classic catch-22. “By law, we can get in trouble [with the Health Department] for allowing dogs into the store. I was finally coached by the Health Department; what they said is to say that dogs are not allowed in the store, and if [the customer] offers up that it’s a service animal, you walk away. They do not have to show proof.”

Although the DOJ’s preliminary list of suggested ADA revisions leans against government documentation of service dogs, the Northwest’s leading resource on the topic, the Bellevue-based Delta Society, thinks Taft and the FDAFB might actually be on to something here. Michelle Cobey, a research-support specialist for the Delta Society, says that some of the disabled people she works with are “treated horribly for not having some kind of identification.” Because of this, she says that “as far as having some registration, we don’t have a problem with that.”

Where the Delta Society’s views contrast sharply with Taft’s is on the latter’s desire to have certain breeds banned from the service-dog industry. While greyhounds are not on the FDAFB’s wish list of banned breeds, Taft says, “Some dogs are not trained to be service animals. Greyhounds, for instance, can only be trained to run.”

Counters Cobey: “Where I do have a problem is banning a certain kind of dog because they consider a breed a bad breed or a fighting dog. We register all kinds of dogs as therapy dogs [i.e., specially-trained dogs who visit hospitals, nursing homes, and the like] if they can pass our test.”

If the DOJ’s revised standards can be expected to bear a fruit that Taft and her cohorts are likely to find tasty, it’ll be in the area of defining more tightly, based on the owner’s condition, what can or can’t be a service animal. “Whether it’s defined or not, there’s no general knowledge of which disabilities allow you to have a service animal,” says Taft—and the DOJ evidently agrees, acknowledging that while its current standard is to not allow “comfort animals” (i.e., animals which generally perform no specific task, but put the owner at ease in public spaces), the law as currently worded is sufficiently vague to require a greater degree of specificity.

But, alas, barring a flood of last-minute public input that causes the DOJ to reconsider the topic, the FDAFB’s desired breed ban is unlikely to become law, as the agency seems more concerned with simply narrowing the range of species which can be utilized as service animals. In its prospectus, the DOJ “proposes to narrow the definition of acceptable animal species to ‘dog or other common domestic animal’ by excluding the following animals: Reptiles, rabbits, farm animals (including horses, miniature horses, pigs, or goats), ferrets, amphibians, and rodents.”

Sure sounds as though Taft will have to make room for a dozen or so new animals in her doghouse. Iguanas of Seattle, beware.