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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The High Cost of Profiting from Fraud

I don't want to be angry today. It's an encouraging, hot, sunny day in a long line of encouraging, hot, sunny days. It's a Saturday, the day that others are out and about so we are in and chillin' in the AC. Murphy and I enjoyed a nice mani-pedi this morning (neither of us like polish) and I have a nice, strong pot of fresh coffee keeping me motivated. It's summer time, and the livin' is easy. But I'm not just angry, I'm P***ed. I often find myself so when I see someone profiting from fraud, especially when it's at my expense (and at the expense of others like me) Call me crazy. Today's perpetrator is a company called Free My Paws, who claim to be "the resource for service animal owners". There are LOTS of companies that sell gear for service dogs, so what's so wrong with this one?

First, a little background. The service dog "industry" is largely unregulated. This has been found necessary because of the wide range of needs of legitimately disabled handlers. Imposing specific tests on SD/handler teams would mean that some folks with significant need would be unable to have a SD. Even so, it is widely accepted that wherever it is possible, a service dog should complete a Canine Good Citizen test to determine suitability prior to beginning their service dog training and take a Public Access Test at the direction of a professional trainer to ensure that the dog is ready to work outside the home. Generally speaking, disabled folks who rely on service dogs work very hard at ensuring that their dogs can perform as needed, and do so without public inconvenience.

As I mentioned, there are many companies that cater to the needs of service dog handlers. They provide goods to better facilitate the team, and in general, make life easier. They don't ask for any kind of verification either. The difference here is, they don't tell you how to pass off your pet as a service dog just so you can take them everywhere with you. Free My Paws does, and they seem to have no problem at all with what they are doing. Check out this video: Free My Paws website video . There is so much wrong with this I don't even know where to begin.

Let's start with the Q&A section (which is, btw, exceptionally offensive to folks who have legitimate disabilities, pretty much ensuring that only fraudulent users are going to shop FMP)

If you yourself would like to perpetrate fraud, be warned. These folks gloss over some pretty important points in order to convince the pet-owning public that anyone can take their dog anywhere, it's easy. I won't go down the whole Q&A list, but I'll pull out some of the more disgusting examples:

Q: What is a Service Animal?
A. The ADA defines a Service Animal as any Guide Dog, Signal Dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, so long as the person’s disability falls under the ADA’s definition of physical or mental impairment or condition.


Here is the ADA's definition (as found here):
"Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

As much as FMP would like to gloss over the "training, work and task" part to encourage "Joe pet owner" to just throw a vest on his pet dog, that part is the essence of a service dog. Yes, they do mention "training", but they don't elaborate and they stop short of discussing the severity and reality of actual disabilities.

Here's my favorite:
Q: I don’t think I am disabled, so do I qualify?
A: You may not think that you’re disabled—yet, you still may be legally “disabled” under the ADA. Just go through our Disability Self-Assessment Test which tracks the ADA’s definitional hoops.

Are you F'ing kidding me? Believe you me, folks with disabilities that are severe enough to warrant the assistance of a service dog are not asking themselves this question. FMP has to know that, but they don't care. They encourage people to find an excuse, a reason that entitles them to take their pet wherever they go. It's no better than "I have a touch of asthma sometimes, I'm entitled to park in a handicapped spot".

And this, the real purpose of these folks:
Q: Does my ID Card expire? A. Yes, the ID Cards are valid for 1 year. In order to remain compliant with most transport administrations requirement that documentation be current within one year, we require our clients to renew their IDs each year. Note that the same rules may also apply to any Doctor's certificates you provide airlines when travelling. If you purchased your ID as part of a kit, an ID renewal is available for $19.99 per annum (normally $39.99).

Guess what folks, as any legitimate service dog handler will tell you, ID cards are NOT NECESSARY.

From the ADA: When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

Even so, ID cards can make life easier. And they can be purchase at any service dog store for about $20. And they don't expire. At least they mentioned a letter from a doctor, which DOES need to be current within one year. While medical documentation of the specifics of your disability are not allowed, if you want to travel it is expected that you provide a letter from your doctor stating that you are disabled and require a service dog. I'm sure there are doctors who have no problem at all with lying, but at least this requirement makes it more difficult for the fakes. Not only does a person need to have a disability under the law, they must have a DOCUMENTED disability, and a doctor's letter confirming this. Nobody is allowed to ask what the disability is, but you must have proof. In my experience (and I fly with my dog regularly), transportation agencies are far more concerned with doctor-verification than with some ID you purchased online.

I guess the most reprehensible part of what Free My Paws is doing, is exploiting the ADA and in turn, risking the rights of legitimate service dog handlers. They are saying (and carefully, within barely legal parameters) "Hey, this is vague enough that YOU TOO may get to experience the joys of bringing your pet with you everywhere, come spend money here and we'll help make that happen". And why is this not okay? Well, the easy answer is because it makes light of the plight of those with legitimate need. But the biggest consequence that I've personally witness is the prominence of ill-mannered "service dogs". Pet owners largely don't grasp the reality of having your dog go with you everywhere, and are unprepared (as are the dogs) for the experience. I have seen dogs licking plates in restaurants, running off-leash at the beach, barking in movie theaters and walking up to strangers for a pat on the head, all while wearing a vest declaring them a "service dog". NONE of this behavior is okay or acceptable while on the job, but it's what the public sees. It's what gatekeepers at businesses see, it's what the travel industry sees. And it makes life that much harder for those with real need, whose dogs are trained and well-prepared for the rigors of public access. If it continues, it may force changes in the laws that could significantly harm the cause of the truly disabled. In short (yeah, I know...too late for that), Free my Paws is doing harm to the disabled community, just to make a buck, and it's reprehensible.

On the upside, fraudulent service dog handlers are frequently 'outed' by their dog's behavior, and the public does have recourse: From the ADA: A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

While it's true that real service dogs make mistakes, they are few and far between  and tend to be promptly dealt with by the handler.

I know I shouldn't take the behavior of  Free My Paws so personally, but they minimize the legitimate difficulties of living with a disability by turning it into nothing more than an excuse to take your dog everywhere. It's disgusting, and I wish there was something that could be done about it. I guess the only thing that I or people like me can do is be sure to purchase our equipment from legitimate sources and to spread the word. I know that within our community at the very least, any dog sporting FMP equipment will be immediately identifiable as a fraud.


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