Ask a person who moves around our public transportation system with a service animal and chances are good they’ll tell you it’s not easy. And there are a few other things they’d like to tell you, such as ‘Don’t pet my dog!’ and ‘No, I’m not faking, thank you very much.’
Sure, there are some considerate people who’ll hold a door open, if your dog can’t (or won’t) fit through the turnstiles. But there are also the well-meaning-but-misguided-commuters who just aren’t familiar with the ADA guidelines for service animals on public transit.
We spoke to several people who bring their service dogs on trains, subways and buses. Here is their advice:
Liam & Einstein: Ignore the dog
Liam Klein is the 14-year-old founder of Chaotic Spyder Foundation, a non-profit that connects kids who’ve been diagnosed with PTSD (like himself) with service dogs.
“That’s ‘Spyder’ with a ‘y’ because it looks cooler,” Klein clarified to Gothamist.
Einstein is Klein’s service dog. He’s a 100-pound, white, fluffy Great Pyrenees, and he’s trained to smell changes in Liam’s cortisol levels and warn him if he’s about to experience a PTSD-related hallucination or panic attack. They’ve been working together for over four years.
But when Klein and Einstein take NJ Transit or the subway together, they frequently encounter people who want to pet or play with the dog. Klein constantly has to point to the dog’s vest and explain: this is a working dog and you can’t pet him.
Sometimes that explanation is enough and people back off. But often people either ignore the explicit request and try to pet the dog anyway, or question why Klein has a service dog if he isn’t blind.
“A service dog can help with almost every single disability you can think of, like a psychiatric disability like PTSD or diabetic alert or seizure,” said Klein.
His advice to other riders: take notice of whether an animal is wearing a service animal vest. If they are, don’t disturb them.
“Just ignore the dog. Act like he isn’t there,” said Klein. “I mean, don’t like, step on him. But act like he isn’t there.”
Aiden & Pepper: Don’t Ask Us To Provide Documents
Pepper has been accused of being a fake service dog many times.
It usually happens when he’s with his handler, Aiden Cattaneo, trying to board a bus in their neighborhood in the Bronx.
“I've actually had bus drivers radio over the loudspeaker to the whole bus to tell all the passengers…‘We're delayed because this person up here won't get off the bus with their fake service dog,’” Cattaneo said.
Cattaneo, like Liam, has what some people call an invisible disability. They get debilitating chronic migraines, and Pepper is trained to sense their hormonal changes and warn them when a migraine is coming on so Cattaneo can take a pill.
Most arguments with bus drivers start the same way, Cattaneo said, with them asking to see an official service dog ID. But that official ID card doesn’t exist — on top of that, according to the ADA, a person cannot be asked to provide documentation of their own disability or a service animal's validity.
The MTA has issued guidance on this, and it’s printed out and posted in MTA workplaces. The bulletin for bus operators specifically says you cannot ask a customer for ID proving their animal is a service animal, but you can ask two questions: “Is this animal a pet?” and “What task has this animal been trained to perform?”
The MTA encourages customers to get a voluntary Service Animal identification card “to avoid misunderstandings in communications between our personnel and our customers.”
Cattaneo said they knew about the voluntary ID card, but didn’t want to get one, on principle. Instead, they carry around a laminated copy of the ADA’s language about service animals in public spaces.
“I wish people would put more thought into the fact that he's medical equipment,” said Cattaneo. “I need him in order to get through the world.”
Cattaneo has filed numerous complaints with the MTA, with specific information about their bus route, time of day, and bus number. Cattaneo shared some of those complaints, dating back to June of 2017, as well as the auto-response acknowledgments from the MTA.
When asked for a human response to one of Cattaneo’s complaints (referencing the 12-digit complaint number), the MTA said it was unable to identify the specific bus driver and did not provide further information about the incident.
Listen to reporter Shumita Basu's story on WNYC:
Abigail & Kit: Faking A Service Animal Is Illegal
Abigail Shaw mostly uses the subway to get around, which means she leaves her house in Brooklyn and hops on a train with her service dog Kit.
Shaw is blind, and she said she hasn’t ever been asked why she has a service dog. But she has had people express surprise to learn that she’s not training the yellow labrador; she’s working with her.
“The follow-up is normally, ‘Oh you don’t look blind!’ or ‘Wow, you’re really beautiful, I can’t believe you’re blind.’” Shaw told Gothamist. “[There are] misconceptions that the public has of people with disabilities, specifically blindness. They have this image that people with disabilities must look a lot different from able-bodied folks or sighted folks.”
Shaw said she’s heard people around her muse about getting a harness so they too could bring a pet on the subway.
There is no single entity that certifies service animals, and no official source for vests or harnesses. Shaw said the guide-dog school that Kit attended provided her harness, but anyone can buy a service dog vest online for as little as $14.95. It’s this notion—that anyone can get their hands on seemingly-official service dog signage—that has fueled the vigilante-level finger pointing on subways and buses, with passengers accusing others of faking their service dog. (And occasionally you’ll find a brazen Amazon reviewer admitting to buying a vest for exactly this purpose.)
Shaw called the rise of the “fakers” surprising, frustrating, and challenging for people who really do work with service dogs.
It’s also illegal. In 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law making it illegal for anyone to apply false identification to a service, emotional support, or therapy dog. Violators face a fine of up to $100, up to 15 days of jail time, or both.
Have you been asked for an official service animal identification card while in transit in the New York area? Tell us what happened, whether you filed a complaint with the MTA, etc. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @shubasu.
We the Commuters is a weekly newsletter about transportation from WNYC and Gothamist. Sign up below for essential commuting coverage delivered to your inbox every Thursday.