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In four minutes, I transformed an imaginary pup named Miss Piggy into a certified emotional support dog on a website called the United States Dog Registry. And it only cost $79 for a lifetime registration, ID card, and emotional support dog tag. For a little extra dough, I could have scored a support dog leash, collar, pouch, and vest.
Despite the fact that this online exercise felt no different than getting ordained at the last minute to officiate a frat brother’s wedding, an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a real thing. The animals can have a calming or stabilizing impact on handlers suffering from depression, anxiety, loneliness, or phobias.
A better resource to certify these animals is the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America, which stipulates that handlers must “have a letter of prescription from a mental health professional explaining that the ESA provides therapeutic value to its owner.” It also clearly spells out that ESA’s are protected by the Fair Housing Authority (FHA) because the purpose of the designation is to help people with ESA’s live in housing with no-pet policies.
Emotional Support Dogs are not Service Animals protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The key difference that Service Animals perform tasks beyond being a comforting companion such as helping a blind person navigate. They can accompany their handler almost everywhere under the law. Conversely, ESA handlers must follow pet policies in locations other than their permanent place of permanent residence and on airplanes. That means restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, this new tier of companion animal is creating a gray area.
The problem is that since Service Dogs and ESA’s aren’t required by law to wear any standardized tags or identification, it can be impossible for restaurant owners to tell them apart, or worse yet, spot an impostor. According to some restaurant operators, Washingtonians may be faking it to dine with their dogs for fun. “Restaurants are put in a very difficult position by being asked to accommodate these dogs, and we never want to say no to someone with legitimate needs, so we are pretty much forced to say yes to everyone,” says Anxo Cidery & Pintxos Bar Beverage Director Tim Prendergast.
Challenging a diner to produce certificates or—god forbid—discuss their mental health at length doesn’t jibe with the age-old, “the customer is always right,” mentality. And it’s illegal to probe too deeply. According to the ADA:
In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion regarding the rules, but the rules are simple, under ADA and other city regulations if someone says it’s a service animal, it’s a service animal,” says Josh Saltzman who owns Ivy & Coney, Kangaroo Boxing Club, and PORC. “If there are people out there abusing it, they’re doing something pretty crappy,” he continues. “But if there’s someone that’s breaking the law, that’s up to ADA enforcement to handle, our job is to give people a good meal and a good time.”
Saltzman describes an incident where a patron showed up at one of his establishments with his dog and tried to bring him in. He was told dogs weren’t allowed in the bar. Then he asked, “What if my dog is a service dog?” Saltzman responded with, “If that’s what you’re telling me, you can bring your dog in here, but that’s a question for you to answer.” The customer walked away and returned later without the pup. “It’s unfortunate that it’s even a discussion,” Saltzman says. “It’s destroying people’s trust—there should be no question, it should be obvious.
Jeff Strine, the director of HR and training for JL Restaurant Group only recalls one incident during his long tenure as general manager at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle. “One night someone came in with a service dog and the dog sat on his lap and he was feeding the dog from his plate,” Strine says. “It wasn’t a problem for me, but some guests from out of town were sitting at the table next to them and they were mortified. But if they say it’s a service dog, we can’t question if it’s a service dog.”
Otherwise Hank’s has only had positive experiences with patrons bringing in their service dogs. Strine even let in a service-dog-in-training one night upon request. “I said of course, they do an important job for people and we want them to be trained and socialized, we want to facilitate as much as possible,” he says.
In his new role, Strine provides all new employees with a sheet about how to comply with the ADA, including the do’s and don’ts of addressing service dogs. “It’s part of the first day of orientation, they fill out tax forms and then go over that,” Strine explains. Restaurants are complying, but still some guests break the rules. “People are definitely abusing it because they want to take their dog wherever they go. Do I agree with it? No. But am I going to give someone a hard time about it? Probably not.”
Both Strine and Saltzman agree that one tip off could be an unruly dog, though every dog has bad days, service dogs included. “A real service dog isn’t going to be disruptive—they’re trained to quietly sit under the table,” Strine says. “You can tell which are properly trained and which aren’t,” Saltzman echoes.
Fortunately, more states are cracking down. As of July 1, it’s illegal to falsely claim to have a service dog in Virginia, and those in violation of the law can be asked to pay a $250 fine. Until more laws are in place, follow life’s most basic rule: don’t be a jerk.