What's the harm in passing your pet off as a service animal? A lot, actually

CINCINNATI -- Clem "the gem," a two-year-old black Labrador retriever, has chauffeured Nancy Jones to the store, church and doctor's appointments since he joined her family in early 2017. Before him, Jones said Monday, going any of those places was a challenge -- sometimes an insurmountable one.

Jones has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that can cause pain, fatigue and loss of motor skills in people who develop it. Clem has specialized training to help her manage it. 

When she doesn't have the strength to pick up objects in her home, he can. When she becomes overwhelmed in public, he can comfort her. If she were to collapse, he could help her get up.

"Clem kind of gives that independence back," she said.

Clem is a need, not a want, in Jones' life. Trained service dogs like him play the same role for people living with chronic medical conditions and disabilities all over the country. They're not just furry friends. They're essential partners and helpers.

Some people don't see that, Circle Tail volunteer Tracy Desch said, and a store-bought service dog disguise has become a frequent refuge for able-bodied people who want -- not need -- their dogs to accompany them through everyday life. 

The fruits of that decision have included public disturbances and even attacks perpetrated by pets incorrectly labeled as service or "emotional support" animals. The right to an emotional support animal is not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the law also bans asking people with such animals about their disability or why they need a canine companion.

They also include damage to people who genuinely do depend on animals to navigate their daily lives, Desch said.

"Those dogs might be destructive in public," Desch said. "They might eliminate in public; they're out of control. … Some business owners and airport staff are a little hesitant because some of the dogs and other animals that are not legitimate are giving the good ones a bad name."

And there are no legal penalties in Ohio for using a fake service animal, although 12 other states do have provisions for criminal prosecution of owners who try to shimmy around pet restrictions with service dog costumes. 

For now, Jones just has to hope people without disabilities don't make a mess that will compromise her own ability to keep Clem by her side in public.

"Other than confrontation and verbally suggesting, ‘People, you need to go home, I don't know what else you can do, frankly,'" animal expert and lawyer David Favre said.

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