Cracking down on service dog fraud

Two service dogs, Syd (left) and Luna, meet in front of the State House on June 12.
Two service dogs, Syd (left) and Luna, meet in front of the State House on June 12. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Heartwarming photos of Eleanor Rigby going into labor unexpectedly, at gate F80 in the Tampa International Airport, quickly went viral last year. Eleanor Rigby — also known as Ellie — is a golden retriever who gave birth to eight adorable puppies as she was waiting to board a flight to Philadelphia with her owner, Diane Van Atter, and another dog — Ellie’s “puppy daddy,” Golden Nugget. Media reports characterized Ellie as a service dog in training and Golden Nugget as Van Atter’s service dog.

Cute puppies at the airport — what’s not to like?


Well, a lot, according to experts who testified at a hearing on Beacon Hill last month in favor of legislation that would crack down on irresponsible pet owners who misrepresent their animals as service dogs. The Massachusetts bill mirrors the efforts of many other state legislatures, a clear indication of public frustration with the problem of fake or poorly trained service dogs abusing the protections afforded to bona fide service animals. This year, the American Kennel Club is tracking 39 bills nationwide that address fraudulent misrepresentation of pets as service dogs, according to Sheila Goffe, the group’s vice president of government relations.

The case of Eleanor Rigby and her family helps explain what lies at the root of the problem state lawmakers are trying to fix. It’s more likely the dogs were “emotional support” dogs for Van Atter, a much more nebulous term that has increasingly been confused with “service dog.”

Yet they’re not the same. We’re in a “misrepresentation of a service dog crisis,” according to Cathy Zemaitis, director of development at NEADS World Class Service Dogs, an accredited nonprofit that has trained more than 1,800 service dog teams over more than 40 years.


Real service dogs are not pets. The Americans with Disabilities Act narrowly defines service animals as dogs “that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” Goffe said at the hearing. “Service dogs,” she said, “are highly trained animals, able to perform their tasks unobtrusively, refrain from reacting to other dogs and people, and behave to the highest standards in public.” (They are also, most often, spayed or neutered.)

Yet a different federal law has helped create the confusion. The Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in airplanes, allows “emotional support” animals to travel in the cabin — without defining what that term means. With no legal definition, it’s opened a loophole for passengers to bring not just dogs but miniature horses and ducks. (United did turn aside an emotional-support peacock, though.) The two sets of rules have created confusion that unscrupulous owners have been happy to exploit. Anyone can go online and buy an official-looking vest for their dog (or squirrel, or alligator, or pig) and claim a right to bring the animals into public spaces.

Misrepresenting a dog as a service animal can have grave consequences. At the hearing, an Arlington resident who has a service dog and uses a motorized wheelchair told lawmakers of the risks of encountering dogs wearing “working dog” vests. If they’re not highly trained, these dogs can get stressed and interfere with the life-saving work that legitimate service dogs perform for their human.


The bill, filed by state Representative Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, would make it a civil infraction to fraudulently pass a dog as a service dog, or service dog in training, “for the purpose of obtaining any rights or privileges afforded to a person with a disability requiring the assistance of a service dog.” It establishes a penalty of up to $500, 30 hours of community service, or both for a first offense, with the fine increasing for subsequent violations.

Ferguson’s bill already has the support of more than 80 lawmakers. It would put into law the obvious: Just because an animal provides emotional support doesn’t mean it ought to have the same protections as a real service animal. As for Eleanor Rigby and her puppies — where do they all belong? Not on a plane.