Thursday, December 04, 2014

The "Emotional Support Animal" Scam

The email came to me uninvited and over the electronic transom:


My name is Cynthia Allen, and I am the Director of Operations at Service Dog Registration of America and Emotional Support Animals (ESA) of America, the largest Service Dog Registration organization in the country. I am writing you about an ever-growing concern that has taken the country by storm and fueled debates on the presence and “growing number of service dogs” in America.

We are also concerned about many of the falsehoods we have seen in articles from The New Yorker and some other very high profile magazines/newspapers lately when reporting about Service Dogs and ESAs.

Eh? Why was anyone writing me about this?

I read on, remembering the news article from the week before where some mental woman tried to bring an incontinent pig on an airplane as an "emotional support" animal.

The email from "Cynthia Allen" went on...

We have not yet spoke to the media about these concerns previously, but with the recent increase in stories we have seen, we believe it’s high time to educate the people, and you could be the first media outlet to secure the story with us.

It is the mission of our organization to help people with various disabilities and emotional disorders to bring their service dogs and ESAs with them wherever they go, without any fear of being hassled or harassed by the uninformed public.

No URL was given for the organization, but I cut and pasted the URL in the sender's email address ( ) and found nothing parked there. There was, however, a similar URL at >>

I wrote the person that sent me this call for fair play.

I will write.

What is your relationship with I cannot find a web site at

Can you send me The New Yorker article, or cite other examples of what you feel is unfair treatment?

Having fired off that missive, I Googled the The New Yorker article in question and quickly found it. Here's what it said:

What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane. The latest group to bend the law is pet owners.

Take a look around. See the St. Bernard slobbering over the shallots at Whole Foods? Isn’t that a Rottweiler sitting third row, mezzanine, at Carnegie Hall? As you will have observed, an increasing number of your neighbors have been keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, cohabiting with them in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings and dormitories, and taking them (free!) onto airplanes—simply by claiming that the creatures are their licensed companion animals and are necessary to their mental well-being. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand.

Ooh. I think I an going to like this article! The author, Patricia Marx, goes on:
Contrary to what many business managers think, having an emotional-support card merely means that one’s pet is registered in a database of animals whose owners have paid anywhere from seventy to two hundred dollars to one of several organizations, none of which are recognized by the government. (You could register a Beanie Baby, as long as you send a check.) Even with a card, it is against the law and a violation of the city’s health code to take an animal into a restaurant. Nor does an emotional-support card entitle you to bring your pet into a hotel, store, taxi, train, or park.

Patricia Marx is my hero. She went on to take a red-eared slider turtle (a larger version of the small pet store turtles that once spread salmonella across America until they were banned) to the Frick Gallery, an expensive shoe store, a restaurant, a chocolate store, a funeral home, and a hair dresser.

Her entry card to all these establishments was nothing but a phony letter and a sticker she bought on-line.

Patrica Marx tests the scam with an "emotional support" alpaca.

Not satisfied
with simply taking a turtle to town, Ms, Marx then went on to tale a snake, an alpaca, a turkey, and even a pig out for a good time, all of them masquerading as "emotional support" animals .

The pig was allowed on an airplane and into the Boston Four Seasons Hotel for afternoon tea.

The Alpaca was allowed on a train, into a museum, and even into the museum shop!

Marx writes:

When you hear that the livestock in your custody has been granted permission to clomp through the premises of a national treasure that houses hundreds of priceless antiques, you do not feel unequivocal joy—particularly when the beast has been known to kick backward if a threat from the rear is perceived. Don’t ask me anything about Frederic Church’s home. Could you really expect me to concentrate on the art when all I kept thinking was: “Didn’t the owners say that when the alpaca’s tail is held aloft it means she has to go to the bathroom?” By the time we reached Church’s entertainment room, Sorpresa was intently humming a distress signal.

So what's the larger story here?

The larger story is that a very poorly drafted regulation was written for airplane passengers.  That loophole has been ripped wide by pushy, self-centered people telling lies and making extreme right claims bolstered by fake paper and store-bought decals. Toss in general ignorance on the part of poorly trained clerks facing a problem for the first time, natural confrontation avoidance, and a generalized fear of getting sued by lawyers, and you have biting dogs, kicking alpacas, disease-spreading turtles, and defecating pigs in public spaces.

The poorly written regulation that started it all off was cranked out in June 2004 by some idiot at the FAA who no doubt meant well. In their “guidance about unusual service animals” the FAA notes that "service animals" were initially meant to be guide dogs for the blind. Those animals have been permitted on commercial airlines since at least 1977 and because they are well-trained  and with sensible owners who are also well-trained, they have presented virtually no problems at all.

The wrinkle is that sometime around 2003, someone at the Department of Transportation decided it was OK to expand the definition of a service animal to include "an animal used for emotional support".  And an "emotional support" animal, the DOT decided, did not need to have any training at all.

For a person to fly with an "emotional support animal," the passenger need only have a letter, written within the calendar year and on medical stationary, saying the passenger is such a mental case that it is medically necessary for them to travel with that animal.

But even here, there are limits.  Snakes and other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders are specifically exempt from even being considered as "emotional support" animals, for some reason. So a pig can fly, but a neutered ferret in a Sherpa bag cannot?  Yep.  Seriously, that's the rule.

That said, there is a pretty big barn door to use to exclude pigs. The regulations go on to note that:

Unusual animals such as miniature horses, pigs and monkeys should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Factors to consider are the animals size, weight, state and foreign country restrictions, and whether or not the animal would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or cause a fundamental alteration (significant disruption) in the cabin service. If none of these factors apply, the animal may accompany the passenger in the cabin. In most other situations, the animal should be carried in the cargo hold in accordance with company policy.

In short, if it's bigger or stinkier than a clean and well-mannered dog, it can be denied access to an airplane.

There is, of course, more.

While airline personnel cannot ask people what their disability is, they can (and should) ask if the animal is a pet. If the answer is "yes," then the animal can be denied admission.

It's also permitted to ask how the animal helps meet this person's disability needs. No answer, no fly and no admission.

It's also permitted to ask how the animal was trained. If the answer to this last question is nonsensical, or if it does not look like the animal can sit where placed, will make noise, will bite, or cannot be maintained under nearly perfect control while on an airplane (as guide dogs for the blind are), then admission of the animal can be reasonably denied.

Which brings me to the scam-facilitator industry in general and "Service Dog Registration of America" and "Emotional Support Animals (ESA) of America" in particular.

While the person emailing me claimed to be "Cynthia Allen, Director of Operations," the email itself was sent from the email account of

It took only a few seconds to figure out that this was one JJ Resnick whose video is on the home page of the dot-org version of his dot-com email address.

Who is this fellow? 

I looked around both web sites and noticed a conspicuous lack of story detailing who Mr. Resnick is, or why he started his company.


In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the web site I found a series of thunderingly stupid videos in which someone by the name of "Tyson Caves" prattles on about things he clearly knows very little about.  He is described as a "Balance Dog Handler". What does that even mean? Is this guy supposed to be a dog trainer? Watching the videos, I seriously doubted it!

I fired off another email:
Could you tell me where Tyson Caves trains dogs and what his background is? I see his videos on your web site.

Also, can you tell me how this company started and why? Is there a story here? What is the background of JJ Resnick?

Two days later, and I still have no answer back. 

Hmmmm. By now these folks might have actually taken the time to read this blog and discover I am not prone to saluting blarney, quick-buck hucksters, liars, fantasists, charlatans, bunko dealers, and people peddling nonsense and scams.

No problem.  I do my own work as most readers of this blog know.

It appears JJ Resnick is this young fellow, who lost a $1.1 million claimed-damages lawsuit in Oregon after being manhandled by local police on Mardi Gras. He  told the jury he was just on the verge of becoming a golf pro and now he was so disabled this was no longer possible. A good story. The jury did not buy it.

So what's Mr. Resnick doing now? Apparantly he sells insurance leads and has something to do with this company that is engaged in multilevel or "network" marketing, which is more commonly known as a pyramid scheme.

And, of course, he is flogging the "turn your pet into a service animal and take it anywhere with you" idea as hard as he possibly can.

The business model here is a simple one. Both "Service Dog Registration of America" and "Emotional Support Animals of America"are peddling the fixings for others to lie, steal and cheat airlines, hotels, restaurants, cab drivers, and store owners.

A veritable fraud factory, these two outfits will sell anyone  a meaningless certificate, a couple of meaningless vinyl stickers, and a made-in-China vest to put on their pet animal, provided they are first paid $99 for about $8 worth of goods.

Using the scam-staging provided by the fraud factories, pet owners devoid of ethics and scruples can try to bluster, bamboozle, and lie their way onto airplanes and into restaurants, stores, and hotels.

Want to take Fido across country? Why pay for a crate and the extra cargo charges when the scam is cheaper?

Want to keep your dog, cat, turkey, or llama in your room for free? Just slap your money down and boldly tell lie after lie.

So what needs to be done?

Very clearly, new airline transportation standards need to be created and "emotional support" animals need to be banned outright, or limited in size to 15 pounds and able to fit into a Sherpa pet carrier.

In addition, federal law should make it a crime to misrepresent a pet or untrained dog as a service animal for the disabled. Some state laws already address this issue, but at this point the scale of the chicanery is so massive federal law is needed.

As for the notion that the Americans With Disabilities Act allows "emotional support" animals to go anywhere, the public needs to be educated. The plain answer here is: "bullshit".

With very rare exception, the ADA limits the definition of service animals to dogs. These dogs are mostly used by the blind, but can include dogs used to assist the deaf, wheelchair-users, and other people with mobility impairments, and people who have very serious psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.

"Emotional support animals" are NOT recognized by the Americans With Disabilities Act and do NOT have to be allowed into restaurants, movie theaters, stores, or barber shops. DOT and FAA rules do not apply in these venues AT ALL.

Sorry, but the fact that you have social phobias, and/or are a rude narcissist and a thieving liar does NOT make you a protected class. It makes you an asshole.

But, of course, there is no shortage of pushy assholes in America, or people only too willing to cater to them.... for a price.

Along with the two fraud factories already mentioned, there is the "National Service Animal Registry", "U.S. Dog Registry", "United States Service Dogs", "United States Service Dog Registry", "Service Animal Registry of America", "Canadian Registry of Therapy Animals and Service Animals", "Service Dog Tags", "United Service Animal Registry", "Goldstar German Shepherds", "Service Dogs America", "Registered Service Dog", "Service Dog Certification of America", "American Service Dogs", "Service Dog ID", "Certified Service Dog", "National Association of Service Dogs", "Free My Paws", "Official Service Dog Registry", and "Service Dog Kits" among others.

All of them are selling worthless pieces of paper, stickers, vests, dog tags and other clap-trap designed to abet the misrepresentation of a pet as a "service" or "emotional support" dog.

If anyone presents papers, ID cards, stickers, vests, dog tags, or certifications from ANY of these places, you can assume the dog is NOT a real service dog.

Real service dogs come from places that TRAIN real service dog,  and NONE of these outfits even look at the dogs and other animals they are papering, much less train them or evaluate them.

For a fee, these places would certify Charles Manson as an "emotional support animal" and a plastic fork as "service animal."

For $99 you can turn your "pet rock" into a "service" rock or an 'emotional support" rock!

And as for the blind, the low-vision, and the folks who use dogs to pull wheelchairs and address other real and legitimate handicaps?  Who cares about them?

So what if all this chicanery leaves a deep and lasting stain on the legitimate use of these much needed assistance animals?

Who cares if liars, cheats, and bunko-peddlers are denigrating the hundreds of hours of intensive training and great expense that goes into making real service animals?

Who cares if restaurants lose customers, airlines lose revenue, and hotels and motels get socked with cleaning costs they did not deserve because lies are being facilitated by internet hucksters peddling bunko papers that are designed to deceive?

Not the folks who profiteer, that's for sure.

Just slap your money down, and these folks will be only too happy to send you a piece of paper that says your spitting cobra is a "service animal" or that your pet skunk is an "emotional support animal."

There oughta be a law?!!

Yes, there oughta. 


Dan said...

Try that one with a pig in the UK, or indeed anywhere in the EU and you would be in a whole world of hurt. Trying it in Germany or the Netherlands would, if anything, cause an even more extreme reaction. The reason is Swine Flu and several other highly contagious pig diseases. The UK regulations can be seen here:

These amount to pigs being considered only as livestock, and never as pets, and if you take one off a holding (which must be registered as such, and have a herd identification number which must be on ear tags of all livestock on that holding) then you need paperwork to support this movement.

A Pig Movement could even just be taking the pig out of a field, walking it down a lane, and back to the same field. Simple as that, but the movement has to be documented. Try taking a pig onto a plane, and the pig will be confiscated and treated as a biohazard until further notice, and the loon trying this likely stuck on a no-fly list (whether official or unofficial).

Eric C. said...

Love this article. Well written, and spot on to the point! Thank you!

As someone who actually trains dogs and handlers, works with therapy dogs, and works with organizations supplying REAL service dogs, this is a topic that is of great concern to me.

My pet dogs (competition obedience dogs who are much better trained and mannered than most children) are NOT service animals. My therapy dogs, in spite of the great work they do to help people, are NOT service animals. Your pig, goat, alpaca, turtle, hamster, etc. is NOT a service animal. None of thee animals have any special access rights, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a liar and a cheat.

To the woman I recently saw dragging two unruly Labradors around the supermarket on one flexi-lead... shame on you. Anyone with a room temperature IQ knows within seconds that these aren't service animals. They are spoiled, poorly trained pets. Service animals don't work on pairs. And certainly not on a "Y" lead on the end of a flexi. And yes I did call her on it... rather loudly.

The "organizations" that claim to "certify" these animals as something other than pets are nothing more than scam and frauds. They perpetuate misinformation for a profit and seriously damage the credibility of real service animals and their owner / handlers.

So, BRAVO! You are spot on correct that we need Federal legislation and (GASP!) regulation. Fraud is fraud, and these organizations need to be called out. But there has to be specific, enforceable laws on the books in order to do that.

And.. by the way... if someone is so emotionally fragile that they need the company of a pig to get on an airplane, they shouldn't be traveling. They should be in therapy!

Chas Clifton said...

I have seen some dubious "service dogs" in Amtrak sleeping cars, and according to personnel, the rule from management is "Ask no questions."

The problem is that on a cross-country train the time between "fresh-air stops" sometimes exceeds a puppy's bladder capacity.

Susan said...

Excellent article. These fools make things worse for the folks who have true disabilities and rely on their trained dogs to keep them safe from harm (like stepping off a curb into traffic). Grrr!

jeffrey thurston said...

I love your blog for postings like this. A finely tuned Bullshit-o-Meter indeed! Well researched yet coming from your curiosity (who ARE these people?). An email leads to your discovery of a classical type scam. And I love your passion- true enough that these people give service dogs a bad name- as surely as fit (albeit fat) people with their little blue placards using the Handicap Parking right next to my work. Every day. Funny- that passion you feel is the same as I have when I get exposed to the latest "Neuroscience" or "Evolutionary Pyschology" SCAM I read on the website of the university where I work. The latest one I read today: "Scientists detect brain network that gives humans superior reasoning skills"! These scammers "discovered" that the human brain really did evolve so as to give us better learning skills than other primates! To quote: "In reviewing dozens of studies – including their own – that use neuroimaging, neuropsychology, developmental cognitive and other investigative methods, Bunge and fellow researchers concluded that anatomical changes in the lateral frontoparietal network over millennia have served to boost human reasoning skills." Wow- the data creators discovered that man's prefrontal cortex is superior to that of animals! All said with a straight face by serious "scientists". Making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year...

Jerri Blackman said...

Just want to say, "thanks," Patrick, for bringing to light a very real problem. One of my best friends is a Deputy County Attorney who has been blind from birth and has used a guide dog since she was 5, when she first trained her own because she was too young to be accepted into guide dog schools. As soon as she could, she applied to a professional school and received her first official guide dog. Without the help of her dog, earning her J.D., not to mention other college degrees, would have been much more difficult, and her mobility would be much more limited. Service animals need to be trained to perform specific tasks to assist their people. Thank you for showcasing this problem and raising public awareness through your blog!

Please do not publish this unless you feel it adds to the discussion.

(I am not signing my name because I do not want to give away her location, to protect her from "bad guys" she helps prosecute. I hope that your comments section will reveal my identity to you; this is just to say "atta boy!" and thanks!)

jeffrey thurston said...

PS- Patrick- I won't be insulted if you tell me to get my own blog for my anti-psychology anti-pseudoscience rants...

concretenprimroses said...

Claiming you animal is a service dog should be illegal with a financial stiff penalty. The airlines at least, have your id, and can check. Hotels insist on 48 hour advance notice and also do some checking.

Olde New England said...

I appreciate you taking the time to research this scam and post your findings. I first found evidence of it on a website touting theraputic "miniature horses", which of course are just really dwarf ponies. Having had horses, I can tell you that they are not theraputic. With very few exceptions they will drive you nuts.

Here's a twist on this scam: on a plane a few weeks ago I saw a 30-ish woman who spent the whole flight from Cincinnati to Washington holding a teddy bear on her lap that was the size of a six year old child. During disembarking she repeatedly rammed into me with this damned thing. I told her if she did so one more time I would disembowel it with my car keys. She replied that this was her "therapy support animal" and that she had a right to take it on the plane and with her everywhere she went. The sad thing is that no organization has the balls to contest this BS for fear of lawsuits.

Karen Carroll said...

Finally, some investigative reporting into this terrible scam that hurts real, properly trained service dogs and the people the help. I have see in person (and been adversely affected) by 'fake' service dogs and animals that lunge at (or flee from) wheel chair users passing by. Being petted by everyone around them, growling, barking, snapping at the general public. Please also address the 'service animal in training' scam that also can be a loophole from prosecution.

bestuvall said...

good article but if the airlines stopped charging people who fly with pet an exorbitant amount for what is basically a "carry on" lots of the fakery would stop. pigs etc are not the norm.. chihuahuas and little fuzzies are. It cost 125 dollars to take a small pet on an hour flight from SFO to San Diego.. EACH WAY that is twice (plus) the round trip ticket price for the human. I asked the airlines why.. their answer..? because we can. They gouge people for no real reason and then expect people will not find a way around their nonsense. a pig on a plane yes i have been forced to sit next to plenty of them.. the two legged kind..

Karen Carroll said...

To test the behavior training of the so-called 'service dog'. My friend asks the owner to make their dog do these basic commands" Sit, Stay, Lie Down Stay.
If the fail, service dog fails with these two cammands, then the dog is a fake.

Morgan said...

Where may I find the "Please don't pass off your pet..." image? It sums it up nicely and hopefully shames the cheaters.

PBurns said...

Just right click and save. Out there on the net.

Marie Prescott said...

Anthropomorphism has gone rampant !...but that's a whole other yopic.

My late husband took a small beagle to his doctor visit and it got hepatitis 3 days later with lethargy and yellowed eyes . Never did that again !

Emily Joyce said...

These scammers are terrible. You cannot just make pets service animals and take them anywhere, they need training. Emotional support animals I do understand to a point. You should not be allowed to take an emotional support animal anywhere BUT so many apartments will not let you have a pet when some people need one. Emotional support animals help out so many at home. There is a need for them, but not just anywhere.

Karen Carroll said...

Law takes effect July 1st:

It's a start.

MJ said...

I hear many people claim social anxiety as a reason to bring their pet everywhere, but as someone with social anxiety, I can tell you that the last thing that will reduce my anxiety is attracting attention or increasing the likelihood of someone talking to me. It is probably unkind of me, but whenever I hear that someone has an emotional support dog I think they must be a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, or a selfish jerk who doesn't care about the health and safety of others because they want to take Floppykins shopping. I've seen barking GSDs in clothing stores and Chihuahua puppies being carried in a coat pocket, and in neither case did the stores bother to do anything about it. The woman with the puppy actually stopped semi-hiding the dog in her coat and moved it into the cart when she realized the grocery store wouldn't do anything even after other shoppers complained. It's appalling.

JayDee Wilkins said...

I agree with the irrational use of ESA. For decades I've recieved the calming & anti-blues benifits of intuitive domestic dogs, cats, & parrots. As an on the surface functional it amazes even myself that I'm a person struggling to get life to work. I just don't relate to what I see as irrational behavior. Wearing offensive smells, smokers that are up wind of innocent down winders, & folks that force their idiosyncrasies on others. Keep it to yourself & be mindful of the world in your immediate midst. Don't argue, don't impose on others unless invited, & be curtious. If you wish to travel with a furry or feathered being make certain you sit near like minded people that are not offended or allergic. Paid or prescribed, have a heart for Ms. & Mr. Ihateanimals!!!

rustic society said...

Thanks for the article. I like how you mention taratulas on an airplane for some reason... although it would be funny and absurd to see someone defend their fondness for them. The world could end up like the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Karen Carroll said...

From a friend who is a business owner:
The laws are in desperate need of a total re-write and MUST be updated to require micro chipping on the dog and a registration card and ID for the dog, along with a yearly evaluation of the dog's behavior, health, and training, which the 'self-trained' service dog people are fighting. For they are NOT willing to have their dog 'third party' evaluated. Which mean in IMHO, they are not qualified, to begin with, to have a service dog. For keeping the dog trained, polite, groomed, presentable and healthy is what responsible service dog handlers do. Businesses are caught in the middle. And several have expressed the desperate need for some ID that is officially issued; NOT from a fake online store. Businesses have no way to properly filter out the fakers and are afraid of legal costs if they do. Currently: The two questions allowed are: "Is this a service dog? And: What tasks are the dog trained to perform to mitigate your disability?" At times: these questions can be answered by the fakers who have familiarized themselves with the ambiguous laws. Emotional Support Animals are NOT service animals and are not allowed in public places.. Dogs in shopping carts are NOT ALLOWED under any circumstance. If the dog is not 'four on the floor', small breeds can be carried in a specially designed harness or vest worn by the handler. The BIGGEST FEAR I hear from any TRUE service dog handler is that their dog is attacked by a fake dog. This happens a LOT more than you realize. And the fakers let the general public interact with the dog. That is a huge indicator of a faker. If the dog is on a retractable lead; that dog is a FAKE!!! You as the general public and especially your children should NEVER interfere with a dog, not petting, making noises at, the offering of food or any interaction. You and any children under your supervision are required to ignore the dog. If the dog is being unruly or not housebroken, Management can expel them from the premises. There are several FB pages regarding this very issue. Just look them up. I feel is the best model to follow for providing service dogs. Based in FL and highly respected. Faking a service dog in Florida and several other states is now a crime.