PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)- What is a service animal? According to the state of Florida, the term service animal is limited to a dog or miniature horse. However, every day, whether it be in passing or at an establishment, there’s a high possibility you will see an animal said to be a service animal.
While that animal may or may not be properly certified, how can you actually tell? According to shareamerica.gov, a website overseen by the United States Department of State, statistics indicate that there are approximately 500,000 service dogs helping the nation, but there is no official site that clarifies how many of those animals went through the training and certification process.
“There’s no federal registry for service dogs. This is something that we’ve been fighting with the VA, with the federal government, to have these standards and to have a central registry for these animals, for these humans,” said Owner of Dogmata Training, Robert Simon.
Simon has owned Dogmata training in Lynn Haven since 2014. He has four dogs of his own, some certified in human remains detection. Simon takes pride in his work as one of the few certified trainers in the area.
He said the training process can be lengthy, but it’s certainly worth it. “When it comes to service dog training, I think the minimum we’ve had is 8 months and it can take up to 24 months to get fully certified, plus the dog has to be a minimum of a year old before we certify the dog. We go through the first 6 months and it has a lot to do with basic training. We’re here to build the bond of respect between the human and the dog. The second half is more about the behavior so we combine the training with the behavior,” said Simon.
The dog doesn’t just leave with general training and behavioral training, but also certifications and documents recognized nationally.
“We certify with the American Kennel Club K9 good citizen, community K9 and urban K9 titles. Titles are for the dog,” said Simon.
Burt Swancey is a Vietnam Veteran who is accompanied by his service dog ‘Razzie’. Swancey and his dog have been together for 3 years now. He rescued her from a local shelter and now she’s the one rescuing him.
“It’s a whole different life, you look at it through different colored lenses,” said Swancey.
He said she knows how to calm him when he loses his temper or raises his voice by simply tucking herself in between his feet.
‘Razzie’ wasn’t always so well trained. After being adopted from the shelter, Swancey took her to Dogmata to Robert Simon, where both ‘Razzie’ and himself went through proper training.
“When you go through the training, you respect what has been done, the work you’ve gone through, the work your dog has gone through,” said Swancey.
However, not all dogs go to Dogmata and it makes Simon, a professional dog trainer, wonder how many of these animals are being passed off as service animals as opposed to going through the proper channels.
“We see a dozen dogs wearing vests, and being one of the only certifiers in this area, and I don’t know any of those dogs,” said Simon.
Many may not know it, but there are actually consequences for falsifying a service animal or service animal trainer.
According to Florida statue chapter 413, section 8 regarding services for people with disabilities, it states that a person who knowingly and willfully misrepresents herself or himself, through conduct or verbal or written notice, as using a service animal and being qualified to use a service animal or as a trainer of a service animal commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.
“Punishment for falsifying a service animal is a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail because it’s a second-degree misdemeanor,” said Simon.
The statue goes onto say that: “Service animal” means an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work done or tasks performed must be directly related to the individual’s disability and may include, but are not limited to, guiding an individual who is visually impaired or blind, alerting an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, pulling a wheelchair, assisting with mobility or balance, alerting and protecting an individual who is having a seizure, retrieving objects, alerting an individual to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to an individual with a mobility disability, helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, reminding an individual with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming an individual with posttraumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, or doing other specific work or performing other special tasks. A service animal is not a pet.
Swancey agrees with the Florida laws and only treats ‘Razzie’ like an animal there to do a job.
“She is a working dog, anything she does at home, even though her vest comes off, it’s a reward for her for the day,” he said.
One issue Swancey faces is the common problem of people approaching and wanting to pet his dog. He said he’s not trying to be mean when he tells people no, but people in the community do not realize that the dog is working and not a pet.
Another issue that commonly surrounds service animals is when they’re brought into an establishment. Many merchants are confused as to what their rights are and are not when it comes to asking.
“Merchants need to be a little more conscious in going up and asking is that a service dog? What has that dog been trained to do,” said Simon.
State law indicates that a merchant cannot ask for papers or what the handler’s disability is, but they can, however, ask if the animal is a service animal required because of a disability and what the animal has been trained to do.
The merchant even has rights when it comes to removing an animal from their establishment. According to Florida Statue, A public accommodation may exclude or remove any animal from the premises, including a service animal, if the animal is out of control and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it, the animal is not housebroken, or the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.
The statue does go onto state that allergies and fear of animals are not valid reasons for dismissal or refusal of service. Simon said that if your animal is actually trained and went through the proper service animal certification, that acting out in public shouldn’t be an issue.
“If that dog is in a shopping cart, you’re holding it, it’s on a 6-foot lead, it’s barking, urinating or defecating, that’s not a service dog,” said Simon.
When looking to certify your animal, be sure you go to a facility that is certified to train, and know that training can take some time in order to be completed properly.