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Denied: The rise of fake service dogs and the harm it's doing to those that are legitimate

Elizabeth Hartranft said the mood of her trip took a sharp turn after a late-night message from her Airbnb host telling her to leave because of her service dog.
Denied: the rise of fake service dogs and the harm it's doing
Posted at 2:00 PM, Jun 06, 2024

For Elizabeth Hartranft, a February trip with her husband from North Dakota to Tampa was supposed to be a getaway.

"So February 13, we came to Tampa for a business meeting slash our anniversary slash recovering from some bad news about a brain tumor," she said.

But she said the mood of the trip took a turn after a late-night message from their Airbnb host.

"The owner and Airbnb insisted I leave," she said.

She provided ABC Action News with screenshots from an Airbnb chat that showed the host felt she'd violated their reservation policy by bringing a dog.

Airbnb Screen Shot 1

She was asked to pay a cleaning fee and leave with a full refund until she told the support team that her dog, Red, was a service dog.

"My dog is a medical device. He is a seizure-alert-certified service dog. And I want the community to understand I have my rights to do my own thing just as you do," she said.

Airbnb Screen Shot 2

Airbnb support initially said her dog couldn't be denied based on their own policy. But, in a follow-up message, the support staffer said the host was "uncomfortable" with letting them stay because he's "allergic to pet hair."

Airbnb Screen Shot 3

To make up for it, they offered to let the couple stay the night and leave the next day with a full refund. Instead of taking that offer, the Hartranfts decided to leave that night.

Later, they called the group Advocates for Service Animal Partners, and Marion Gwizdala took their call. He advised them on their rights and encouraged them to file a complaint with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"The reasons for these laws is so that we have full and equal access," he said.

And while Gwizdala feels Airbnb got it wrong in this case, he added that there are some legitimate scenarios in which someone can legally deny your service dog.

"Whether it's a service animal or not, if you're a business owner and the dog is out of control, and the person does not take effective measure to correct the behavior, you can have that dog removed as well," he said.

Airbnb owner charged

An excerpt from Hartranft's HCSO report found that the host violated Florida state statute 413.08(3)(f), which states:

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. Allergies and fear of animals are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to an individual with a service animal. If a service animal is excluded or removed for being a direct threat to others, the public accommodation must provide the individual with a disability the option of continuing access to the public accommodation without having the service animal on the premises.

HCSO Airbnb Report Excerpt

That host has since been charged with one count of "denial of rights of the disabled," a second-degree misdemeanor. He has since pleaded not guilty in the case. His pretrial hearing is scheduled for July 16.

Mary Peter on K9 Partners for Patriots

Impact of service dog denials on veterans

Mary Peter is a longtime service dog trainer who told ABC Action News she used to have a dog training business that was open to the general public.

But 10 years ago, she closed it and founded K9 Partners for Patriots. The Brooksville company focuses solely on helping veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and military sexual trauma certify their service dogs.

"I realized that they just couldn't function in a civilian environment [and] that they needed something that was created just for them. And putting them together with other veterans with the same diagnosis would give them the camaraderie that they were missing," she said.

Mary continued, "They would be less self-conscious because everybody had the same thing, and so I closed my business and founded that because I knew that I could help and somebody had to do something."

According to Peter, her new organization has helped more than 700 veterans from 46 Florida counties and beyond.

"If they have a dog that they would like to see if their dog could be a service dog, we will evaluate their dog, make sure the temperament is right, the dog is showing that it can help them. If that's the case, we'll put their dog into the six-month training program. If not, then we will look for a dog for them tailor-made to what their needs are. We rescue, because our goal is to save a dog as well as a vet, and we've rescued 250 dogs so far to partner with vets. [These are dogs] that have been scheduled for euthanasia or [were] homeless, so it makes the veteran feel like they're saving something as well."

It's work that the program's head counselor, Damian Watson, said is changing lives.

"It provides them with a piece of their life back. That they might not have had for a long while," he said.

Click the video below to see Mary working with her own service dog named Justice. She trains him in German.

Mary Peter shows how she trains service dogs for vets

But Peter adds that the progress their program graduates see can, at times, be derailed by incidents similar to what the Hartranfts experienced.

"The hardest thing for me to see is veterans that we've worked so hard with for months and months [who] trained their dogs and worked hard, and then they come back and say, 'I give up because the public was so bad,'" she said.

So, to help prepare veterans for the real world, part of Peter's program includes “real-life scenario stations" — where they run through simulations of service dog denials and other potential stumbling blocks.

What's the difference?

"It's the fake service dogs that have made the issues so hard and places don't want to let dogs in, and real service dogs in anymore," said Peter.

But the folks with K9 Partners for Patriots told ABC Action News they also understand why some are leery.

"I think the biggest problem is the federal law itself because ADA law says you don't have to have a vest, you don't have to have an ID, you don't have to have professional training, you can train your own dog. So that makes it very difficult, and I feel like businesses have the right to ask for ID, but it's against the law," she said.

If you're unsure, she said there are a few clues that can help you spot the difference.

"A service dog is well-behaved, obedience-trained. They don't go to the bathroom [where they're not supposed to], they don't growl, they don't bark," said Peter.

Watson added that there are also key differences between a service dog and an emotional support animal.

"When we're thinking about emotional support, think of the presence of the animal [as] the therapeutic intervention. However, when you're working with a service dog, there's specific tasks that they do," he said.

Ultimately, Peter believes a better-educated public would make things easier for her program's graduates.

"This [dog] is no different than a wheelchair or a walker or oxygen. This is medical equipment," she said.

But in the absence of education, she's encouraging people to lead with love.

"Just be kind, be kind. And let these people that they're dealing with a disability that they have to live with, go on with their life so they can live," she said.

Hartranft said she can support this sentiment for everyday people, though she added that she hopes to hold corporations accountable in a different way.

"So, my next step is to lawyer up and get a lawsuit because it's not right for disabled people to be treated like this. I don't have a medical device because I want it. I would much rather have my service dog as my companion, not my service dog," she said.

Following a request for comment on Hartranft's case, an Airbnb spokesperson released the following statement:

“We have policies in place protecting the rights of guests with service animals. As soon as this report was brought to our attention earlier this year, we supported our guest at the time.”

This story was originally published by Rochelle Alleyne at Scripps News Tampa.