When Kevin Lambert’s service dog, a black Lab named Ronnie, senses he’s in a funk, she plunks her head down in his lap or sometimes climbs right onto it, all 65 pounds of her. When they’re out together, she sticks by the Army vet’s side, helping to keep his post traumatic stress disorder at bay, and makes him feel less alone.
But because Lambert suffers mostly from wounds people can’t see — he returned from Iraq in 2006 with PTSD, a brain injury, and fibromyalgia — sometimes people don’t accept Ronnie’s constant presence.
“I’ve been challenged in government buildings, stores, pizza shops,” said Lambert, 30, a North Shore resident. “One ignorant remark can throw me off for months.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses, government, and many nonprofit organizations to generally allow service animals wherever the public has access. But the growing number of service dogs accompanying people with less-than-obvious medical conditions — think psychiatric problems or diabetes — is sparking skepticism and, in some cases, confrontation.
And a sad paradox is emerging: the very animals intended to make things better can actually trigger problems when restaurant owners or salespeople challenge the animal’s right to accompany its owner.
The issue erupted in a Worcester suburb in August, when the owner of a diner in Oxford turned away an Iraq war veteran who has PTSD, and his service dog, a Jack Russell terrier. More than 33,000 people supported a Facebook page calling for a boycott.
The diner owner, who said he didn’t believe the dog was a trained service animal, later apologized, and the boycott was called off, but a remark he made shortly after the incident at Big I’s reflects the lingering doubt over service dogs for those without obvious disabilities. “How much emotional support do you need when you’re eating breakfast?” Russell Ireland asked.
A service dog can alert a diabetic that her sugar levels are not normal; lie next to an epileptic having a seizure to prevent injury; stop children with autism from ingesting things they should not; and help a person with PTSD by turning on lights in a darkened room, or model calm behavior in a crowd. Service dogs do not have to wear a vest, but many do to inform the general public.
Statistics on confrontations overassistance service animals aren’t tracked, and only a few reach the level of police action or a discrimination complaint. But Julian Tynes, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, says the number of incidents is growing and will likely escalate as more dogs help those without visible disabilities. “We see people who don’t believe the person is disabled,” Tynes said.
His agency handled four cases involving service dogs in 2008, Tynes said, and seven in 2012. Eight complaints have been filed this year, plus the MCAD has taken the significant step of filing a Commission-initiated complaint against diner owner Ireland and Big I’s Inc.
Many people who have service dogs, and their advocates, blame challenges to an animal’s legitimacy on ignorance, not malice. But even so, the incidents can be jarring. In Princeton, Mass., staffers at NEADS , a non-profit that trains dogs for deaf and disabled people, often field calls from service dog owners who are upset because they’ve been aggressively questioned or denied access.
“Someone’s out just trying to get a carton of milk and they don’t want to get into a confrontation, so they might just leave the store,” said Lisa Brown, the manager of communications. “It’s heartbreaking. They are just trying to have an easy, nice day.”
“I’ve had people ask me to prove I’m deaf,” said Celestine Reid, an associate minister at Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church in Worcester, who is hearing impaired and uses a service dog.
Because she’s an excellent lip reader and wears small hearing aids obscured by her hair, disbelieving hotel workers and salespeople have tried to deny access to a succession of her service dogs. “I don’t take it personally like I used to,” she said.
Although people have been using seeing-eye dogs since the German army trained German shepherds to help wounded and suddenly sightless soldiers off the battlefield in World War I, and the hearing impaired have used dogs since the 1960s, the use of dogs for other disabilities is relatively recent, said John Ensminger, the author of “Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society: Science, Law and the Evolution of Canine Caregivers.” Dogs were trained for help with stress disorders in the 1990s, after the first Gulf War, he said, and to assist people with autism around 2000.
But abuse of the system has grown, as some pet lovers without qualifying conditions try to pass their animals off as “emotional-support animals,” Ensminger said. It’s a recognized designation that can allow an animal to live in a building that doesn’t allow pets, or to fly free of charge in an airline cabin — with a valid note from a doctor or mental health professional. But it does not allow a dog the same access to restaurants or other places that service dogs receive under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A service animal is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for its owner, while an emotional-support animal performs the fuzzier job of making its owner feel better, and it may have received little or no training.
“Where it’s particularly problematic,” Ensminger said, “is that people who have legitimate service animals are having to prove things they didn’t before, because restaurants are saying, ‘We let someone in last week who said they had a service animal, and the dog was barking.’”
In Boston, Gina Hayes, a specialty dog trainer, said she’s getting an increasing number of calls from “snowbirds” seeking emotional-support certifications so that their pets will be allowed in their no-pet Florida condominiums.
In Florida, a property manager says he sees the result. “Word has gotten out,” said George Zamora, of Regatta Real Estate Management, Inc., in South Beach. “I don’t want to say that someone doesn’t have a disability — we live in a litigious society — but in a lot of cases it’s highly suspect.
“There’s barking, dog hair everywhere, some people let their dogs relieve themselves in the hallway, and some of these dogs are aggressive,” he added.
Although the rules governing animals are made clear in the Americans with Disabilities Act and other regulations, the lack of a certifying agency — to issue the equivalent of a driver’s license, for example — leads to confusion, some advocates say.
In fact, although service dogs and emotional support animals are not required to wear a special vest or patch, businesses have sprung up online selling the items along with photo ID cards based on self-reported disabilities or conditions.
Last year, one firm, National Service Animal Registry registered about 7,000 emotional support animals — four times more than it did four years ago, said CEO Tim Livingood.
The promise of avoiding confrontation is attractive to those like Lynn Crisci, a Bostonian who suffers from PTSD after falling on stage while performing, and relies on a Maltese service dog, Lil Stinker, to keep her calm. “I got so fed up with being harassed I just bought a vest and ordered a badge,” she said. “Having PTSD, I need to avoid confrontation.”
As for Lambert, the Army veteran, the fact that he uses a cane for leg injuries reduces challenges to Ronnie, his trauma dog. “Some people think I’m blind because they see the cane,” he said. “I have a lot going for me, in that sense.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.