A new law passed by the Florida Legislature takes the first tentative steps toward making it easier for business owners and airlines to keep phony service animals out of restaurants, away from condo swimming pools and off commercial airline flights unless they’re actually certified by the state.
It’s the latest battle in a long war between pet owners and the businesses or condominiums that don’t necessarily welcome our furry friends.
“This is a baby step in the right direction,” said attorney Donna Berger, a Fort Lauderdale-based condominium law expert with the Becker & Poliakoff law firm.
The new law makes it a misdemeanor for someone to lie about having a disability in order to get a phony service animal in where it otherwise wouldn’t be allowed.
The law applies only to actual service animals, usually dogs, which have “a specific set of skills designed for a specific disability,” such as a Seeing Eye Dog, Berger said.
Regulations for emotional support animals are much looser, she said: A prescription is necessary, but “It could be your g.p., it could be a nurse practitioner. That’s not a high bar to cross.”
Abuses are becoming rampant, Berger said. “I have actually seen phony service animals in the airport.”
For example, she recently observed a woman preparing to board a plane with a boxer – a breed not inherently disciplined enough to use as any type of service animal.
“They jump up, they’re slobbering,” she said. “And she’s getting ready for an eight-hour flight to Europe.”
Mark Benson, a longtime community manager in Fort Myers and expert in property management, said the law is new but that the debate over where pets should be allowed has been going on a long time.
Things can get complicated for a property manager, he said: For example, some communities ban certain types of dog such as pit bulls or Rottweilers, he said, but if one were a legitimate service animals, “You’d have to go along with that.”
Berger said the new law may give a business owner the courage to challenge someone’s claim that a dog is a service animal – some proprietors have been reluctant to do so for fear of facing a lawsuit from the animal’s owner.
In the long run the issue should come down to common courtesy, Berger said. “There are plenty of businesses that are pet friendly. Instead of going out of their way to find those places in the business or residential communities, they go to those that aren’t. And those people have rights too.”