by Sydney Nelson
So you’ve decided to get a service dog, or perhaps you already have a dog that you wish to train to be a service dog. The first thing most people do when they are curious about the world of service dogs is to head to Google; but when you type the words “service dog” into the Google search bar, the top six results that show up are “service dog registries.”
What Are These Registries?
While seemingly harmless and presumably full of information about service dogs, these websites are aimed at selling products or bundles to dog owners. Their goal is to get you to buy various packages for your dog that will aid in identifying your dog as a service animal – including identification cards, certificates, registry numbers, vests, and leashes. One might think this makes the dog ‘a legitimate service dog/ emotional support animal’, but this could not be further from the truth.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of justice do not recognize these types of ID cards, certificates or other documentation as proof that the dog is a service animal. (See Question #17 of the Americans with Disabilities Act Frequently Asked Questions). Entities covered by the ADA may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal as a condition for entry. This, in essence, means that those ID cards, certificates, and packages that registries sell are rendered obsolete and unnecessary.
Free and Voluntary Registries
However, there are some states, counties, cities, occasionally the military, and even colleges in the United States that offer free and voluntary registries for service dog handlers. Many communities maintain voluntary registries that serve a public purpose; for example, to ensure that emergency staff knows to look for service animals during an emergency evacuation process. Some offer a benefit, such as a reduced dog license fee for individuals who register their service animals. Registries for purposes like these are permitted under the ADA because mandatory registration of service animals is not permissible – they must be voluntary and not required as a condition for entry to public places.
An entity may not require that a dog is registered as a service animal as a condition of being permitted in public places; this would be a violation of the ADA. Some military bases may require registration or some form of identification of service dogs because they are excluded as a covered entity under the ADA since bases are federal properties and not considered publicly accessible.
Unless the registry serves a public purpose to maintain the safety of the dog and handler, is offered for certain licensing discounts or required because of military base protocols, then the registry would not be necessary. A majority of the registries found online are not necessary – they don’t typically have a purpose other than to create a phony database that is paired with ID cards that are not required, nor recognized by the Department of Justice.
ID Card Logistics
If you do not need them, why are they legal for those online sites to sell? Does this mean that people are being scammed? The short answers are: because it is not illegal to sell things that you do not need, and yes. Thousands of people will be scammed by these registry sites every year, as service dogs become more widely used as specially trained medical equipment that help to mitigate disabilities. These IDs, registries, and certificates are not recognized by the Department of Justice or the ADA, but the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) accepts these ID cards and other documentation as acceptable forms of identification for service animals:
14 C.F.R. § 382.117 Must carriers permit passengers with a disability to travel with service animals?
2. (d) As evidence that an animal is a service animal, you must accept identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of a qualified individual with a disability using the animal.
Although air carriers may accept these ID cards and certificates, it doesn’t exclude the fact that an air carrier must still determine if the dog is, in fact, a service animal, and that they may still inquire about the task(s) the dog performs to mitigate the handler’s disability/disabilities. The dog must still be task trained, under control, and housebroken. If the dog is deemed unsuitable for air travel because of it’s lack of training or control, hygiene (posing a direct threat to the health and safety of others), or is not in-line with the standards the dog must meet to be considered a service animal as per the ADA requirements (such as the dog not being task trained and/or not potty trained), the dog may be removed from the flight or not allowed on the plane at all, ID card or not.
So What’s the Big Deal?
These ID cards and certificates actually hurt service dog and handler teams, rather than help them. The reason for this is because it is a civil right for handlers of service animals to access public places without documentation. This is why the ADA allows covered entities to ask the two questions:
1. “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?”
2. “What work or task(s) has the animal been trained to perform?”
These questions help the employee of the covered entity determine whether or not the dog is a service animal, without the need for ID cards or certificates.
Many handler teams do not use ID cards or certificates because they do not need to since they are not recognized by the ADA or DOJ as legitimate forms of proof that the dog is a service animal. However, when a team does use an ID card or certificate as “proof” that their dog is a service animal, it can leave the impression on the employee that these things are required for entry to the establishment; this creates access issues later on when a team exercises their right to not use them.
IDs Cause Access Problems for Other Handlers
Advocates for service dog handlers that volunteer to assist with cases most often deal with cases that involve access issues that arise because the person who came with their animal before the client had used an ID card or certificate to gain entry with their service dog or pet. They may have used the ID card or certificate to gain entry into places just so they can have their pet with them in non-pet friendly places; which can cause problems and is a violation of the ADA. In some states, using these ID cards or certificates to represent your dog or other pet as a service animal when it is not a service animal, maybe a crime that is punishable by law.
Unfortunately, because service dog education and the understanding of the covered entities’ rights are not ‘key concerns’ in the business world, many employers and employees do not know or understand the laws involving service dogs. Most employees that ask for identification for service dogs to grant entry to the covered entity, do not realize that they are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is their right to deny entry to animals that are not service animals, and sometimes their responsibility; especially so if the covered entity is a food establishment – such as a grocery store or a restaurant.
So What Can You Do in the Event of an Access Issue?
Instead of spending between $50-$300 on some “ID card, vest, certificate, etc. package,” save your money and opt for one of these options instead if your dog is a service animal and you want to help prevent an access issue:
1. ADA Information Cards
Some websites sell ADA information cards that a handler of a service dog may use in the event of an access issue. They are to be used for informational purposes as opposed to “identification cards;” so they are a good option for keeping the laws on hand at a moment’s notice. It is wise to make sure the wording of the cards is correct as well – ensure that the laws are written correctly, that the ADA Information Hotline number is listed (not “call the ADA,” as you cannot call a legal document), and that it ensures the card states the handler has the rights – not the dog. If the dog had rights to public access then everyone’s dog would have access rights, not just specially trained dogs who mitigate their handler’s’ disabilities.
2. Use Custom Made Info Cards
Many handlers will carry custom-made informational cards. They may include some facts about service dogs, the laws summarized, and perhaps a drawing of the dog. They can be passed out to anyone who may be curious about the dog too, making them especially handy when you don’t have time to talk to someone if they ask questions. Often times, they will also have links to social media accounts for the service dog so that the general public may learn more about service dogs and their jobs.
A really important point to include is that they can be used to answer the two questions a business may ask you in a written manner. If a handler has anxiety, a hearing impairment, does not speak, or several other disabilities that may create a communication barrier, info cards that are customized can be a fantastic way of answering the ADA questions by having the card list the dog’s task(s) or what work the dog has been trained to perform.
3. Understand Your Rights, and Practice Speaking Them
The better you understand your rights, the better the outcome (usually) in case of an access issue. Practice speaking them with a friend, a family member, or a significant other. The hope is to become more confident speaking them to someone you know so that it will become easier to speak them to someone who is denying you access with your service dog.
Performer's TipPretend you are speaking with a friend while addressing your rights to an owner, employee or gatekeeper of a covered entity. It helps to ease the pressure and stress of the situation for some people. This technique is commonly used with actors and singers who suffer from stage fright.
4. Keep Program or Organization Issued IDs and Certificates at Home
Using IDs or certificates issued by programs or organizations that train service dogs as ways to gain access is generally frowned upon as well. Remember – entities may only inquire as to what task(s) or work the dog has been trained to perform to mitigate a disability, not about where or how the dog was trained. These ID cards or certificates used as proof of training can be helpful in an occasion where proof of training IS necessary (usually only in a courtroom setting), so they should be kept at home in a safe place.
Overall, IDs and certificates are just a bad idea. They’re a waste of money, cause problems and access issues for other handlers, and are not recognized as legitimate forms of proof that your dog is indeed a service animal. So save your money, know your rights, and try alternative methods to prevent or resolve access issues – your wallet (and the community, of course) will thank you.