People pretending to have a service dog and buying fake credentials for their pet are breaking the law and making things more difficult for disabled people who rely on the help of their service animals. September is National Service Dog Month and this story is disturbing and upsetting and highlights the problems that can be caused for legitimate service dogs when so many people are passing family pets as trained therapy and service dogs. The result of this unlawful and bad behavior is increasing skepticism toward those people with a true need; they are often questioned, embarrassed, and even denied services when accompanied by their dog.
K9s for Warriors paired Captain Jason Haag, a veteran who served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, with his service dog Axel in 2012. Haag suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is a recovering alcoholic.
Haag, his wife, and Axel attended a gala in Los Angeles for Service Dog of the Year last week, and it was a proud moment when this German Shepherd was awarded the top honor. The group prepared to fly home to Fredericksburg, Virginia after the event but ran into trouble at the American Airlines boarding gate.
The former marine says that he always calls ahead of a flight to make sure there will be room for Axel. On this Sunday, the group waited in the boarding area with Axel for two hours before the flight with no questioning beforehand. As they lined up to board the plane, the gate agent reportedly pulled them out of line, told the veteran the flight was full, and demanded proof that Axel was a real service dog. At the time, Axel was wearing his special service dog vest and harness in compliance with the airline’s policy regarding service animals, but the employee continued questioning Captain Haag about his disability and demanded to see documentation.
Haag did his best to answer the questions but says that he didn’t provide paperwork because “it’s illegal to ask for and against federal law.” He ordinarily doesn’t carry it because it’s never been an issue. He did, however, provide an ID and had called ahead and was told everything was fine. Sadly, it wasn’t.
More airline managers joined in the questioning, and Haag says that his wife “was in tears in front of 200 people as they tried to bully us.” They were not allowed to board and the flight left without them. In an update posted to his Facebook page, Haag reported that staff members of the American Humane Society booked another flight for them, and got them a hotel and some clean clothes. According to the post, American Airlines wouldn’t even get them back the bags they had already checked. In less than a day his post had well over 6,000 shares. K9s for Warriors is weighing in on the incident, too, saying “K9s for Warriors will STOP this right here and right now. Shameful, American Airlines.”
As for the airline, they went into immediate damage control with a spokesperson initially saying that Haag was the one who decided not to fly and that the airlines fully supports members of the armed forces. On Monday, American Airlines issued an apology to the veteran for the “confusion” over his travel plans and publicly thanking him for his service.
The Haag family finally flew home to Virginia with Axel – Service Dog of the Year – safely tucked under Jason’s seat. With an admirably positive attitude, Captain Haag says that he and Axel will use the publicity opportunity this situation has provided to spread awareness about service dogs and the veterans who rely on them.This incident is less isolated than you might think. The website Airline Complaints has reported on other cases where people with service dogs were kept off planes. There was plenty of outrage when a German shepherd named Kevin was not allowed on an American Airways flight out of Charlotte. Kevin is a military dog who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and was on his way to the Democratic National Convention for bomb-sniffing duty. He normally flies commercial flights sitting in the row of seats next to the bulkhead with his United States Navy handler.
There have been similar complaints about other airlines and businesses denying service to people accompanied by service and assistance dogs. The American Humane Association believes that Captain Haag’s experience highlights the need for better employee training, reminding us that service animals are absolutely “essential to so many people who struggle with emotional and physical challenges.”
The illegal and selfish behavior of people who outfit and document their pets into fake service dogs simply for convenience or to avoid separation from a pet only muddies the water further and creates a stressful situation for people with a genuine need for the assistance of a service animal and for airlines and other businesses. It’s against the law and it is morally wrong.