On May 4, 2017, a 50-year-old man arrived at a crowded Burger King on Rainier Avenue in South Seattle to order a burger—just like any other customer. Except that he stepped up to the counter, ordered, and proceeded to a table with a hamburger—along with his dog.

When a Burger King employee told him he needed to leave, the man ignored it. “Nobody wants to eat around a dirty dog,” the employee said after approaching him again, according to documents. The customer said that this dog was a service animal. No, the employee said, it’s not. If it was, it would have a vest, referring to the vests sometimes worn by service animals. The employee pressed: If the man didn’t leave the employee was going to call the cops—then proceeded to call the cops.

The man—who has a history of mental and physical health struggles, including pulmonary artery disease and a heart attack—wolfed down his burger and stepped out of the restaurant with his canine friend, the canine friend who reminds him to take his medications, who helps him exercise. (The employee was later written up and disciplined, according to the attorney representing the Burger King franchise.)

The story is one of many similar cases, as King County’s public health department records show. The agency currently fields about 100 health code complaints a year relating to animals, and most of them about man’s best friend.

Grievances in the food service industry in the recent past have involved dogs licking tables or standing on them. One involved a dog who defecated right in front of the produce aisle at a grocery store. Many customer-to-customer confrontations have gotten heated, with workers stuck in the middle. Another complainant, exasperated with a restaurant, vented simply: “Dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs!”

Particularly for food workers, who contend with the risk of health code violations, making sure that dog performs a service for that owner can get complicated fast. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows only two questions: whether the animal is required for a disability and what tasks it can perform.

Business representatives, meanwhile, believe the problem of people falsely claiming their pets as service animals is only getting worse. One woman made national headlines in January 2018 when she bought a plane ticket for her peacock, who she claimed was an emotional support animal. She was refused boarding by United Airlines.

In 2009, a man who planned to fight for his snake’s recognition by the U.S. Department of Justice, insisting his near-five-foot boa constrictor helped prevent his oncoming seizures with a hug. Representatives from grocery stores say employees have often stopped asking to avoid potential liability.

But now those businesses may have an upper hand. Earlier this year, grocer representatives—the Washington Food Industry Association and Northwest Grocery Association—successfully lobbied for a change in state law. At the behest of a business owner in his legislative district, state representative Mike Steele, a Chelan Republican, sponsored a bill that criminalized trying to pass off a pet as a service animal. Steele cited the peacock incident as an example of how customers abuse service animal policies. Even some disability rights advocates supported the bill, saying it would help those who employ legitimate service animals. Disability Rights Washington leaders, who declined to comment for this story, opposed it. The bill passed unanimously in the House and, in March 2018, with a 46-2 vote in the Senate.

Now, starting January 2019, a person can receive a civil citation and a $500 fine for claiming a pet without the proper training is a service animal. Following federal law, the measure recognizes only two kinds of service animals: dogs and miniature horses.

And yet the bill doesn’t fix much.

Because being able to tell whether a service animal is in fact a service animal, as a certain Burger King employee will tell you, is not always easy.

For this, Jan Gee, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, blames the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law passed in 1990 to prevent discrimination for disabled people and restricts businesses from establishing protocol for verifying a service animal beyond a person’s word. She has beseeched the U.S. Department of Justice to reevaluate the ADA, to require it to include a more regulated certification process. (She says DOJ officials told her they’d consider it. The DOJ declined to comment for this story.) For now she says the businesses she represents will be firm about the new state law, and will be trained to trespass people who falsely claim to have service dogs.

Some advocates for people dependent on the comfort and skill of animals aren’t much happier. After all, if it’s so hard to tell what is and what is not a service animal, who in the end truly suffers? 

You’ve seen the signs. The international prohibition symbol with the figure of a dog in the center. “No pets except service animals only” posted on the front door. Sometimes there’s an illustration of a person in a wheelchair, aided by a dog in a vest, with the words: “Service animals specifically trained to aid a person with a disability are welcome.” But chances are, the real dog isn’t wearing a vest. (It doesn’t have to.) And the real person isn’t in a wheelchair. (They don’t have to be.) Most people with illnesses or disabling conditions have hidden ones, including psychiatric disabilities, heart conditions, or being prone to seizures.

Who does lie about having a trained service dog? Hard to tell. According to public health records in King County, few health code complaints cite suspicion that the owner passed his or her pet as a service animal. More often, customers took issue with the presence of dogs in general. They often say it’s clear they’re not service animals. And complaints in King County have stayed pretty steady since at least 2015.

In many of those complaints, business employees appear confused by the ADA law or are unaware of the health code; many complainants said employees told them they were dog-friendly, violating state Health Department regulations. Sometimes they don’t care enough to enforce the pet policy—several cited restaurant owners bringing their own dogs. Other times they don’t understand what they’re allowed to do, claiming that they’re not permitted to ask. And accusers themselves show they don’t know how to tell whether a dog is a service animal, citing misbehavior or the lack of a vest.

Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst at the Washington State Human Rights Commission, fields technical assistance calls to the commission and estimates that about 30 percent of the questions she receives relate to service animals.

She says that while parts of the new state law are good—it clearly defines a service animal as a dog or mini-horse, providing some much-needed clarity to establishments on that front—other aspects could be problematic. In particular, the law allows punishment when someone “should have known” that a pet didn’t fit the definition of a service animal.

“Who’s going to decide what a person knew or should have known?” Lindstrand says. The fact that the law remains vague on who’s in charge of ultimately penalizing someone makes her uneasy. She points out that those with intellectual disabilities may not be able to understand the distinction and could truly believe their pet is a service animal.

To fine that vulnerable population, which may not have the money to pay, could spell trouble. Especially because under the ADA workers are still only allowed to ask whether the animal is required for a disability and what tasks it can perform. If a person responds, and it sounds like a lie, someone can still call police.

Making the distinction of a service dog can be confusing even to those without intellectual disabilities. There is no federally recognized certification process, and scams online allow people to register their pets as service or emotional support animals without any requirements. Anyone can also buy a service dog vest. But federal law states that what distinguishes a service dog from, say, an emotional support dog is proper training. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights investigates complaints of ADA violations by requiring proof of disability and need for an animal from a medical professional, according to OCR spokesperson Roberto Bonnaccorso; the city doesn’t require proof of training. And that can involve a years-long process, from the time the pup is eight weeks to two years old at graduation. And even then, no dog is perfect.

Buttercup lay crouched in the middle of the floor, her mouth wide open, her eyes fixed on the humans entering the room, tail swinging left to right like a metronome. A trainer guided the stocky, two-year-old yellow Labrador—smart enough to switch off the lights, close doors, retrieve objects, carry her own leash—around the room to showcase her skills. Under commands, Buttercup dropped back to the floor.

But Buttercup, for all her seemingly preternatural intelligence and skill, is still a dog. We were reminded of that when, in a moment of self-indulgence, she rolled around on her back happily, her stomach exposed. “No, no,” her trainer admonished. “You’re not allowed to do that in public.”

Brigadoon Service Dogs in Bellingham is one of just three nonprofits in Washington state accredited by Assistance Dogs International, an organization that establishes standards for training service dogs. The small remote office is currently instructing about 30 dogs, many of them housed in their kennels in another building, a team of superheroes ready for deployment. Coup, a nearly two-year-old black lab, will go to a girl with anxiety and a developmental disability; Cinder, a one-year-old smooth collie, will be a hearing dog; Ruby, a blue German shepherd contracted for training, will help her owner with mobility issues.

Mr. Chips, a 60-pound poodle, was raised at Brigadoon and is now owned by one of its employees, Ariane Denham. From 2010 to 2011 Denham served in the U.S. Army’s 160th Forward Surgical Team in Afghanistan, where she treated traumatic injuries and often worked 48-hour shifts on the nursing floor. She still remembers mortar fire at a nearby camp and the Afghan teenage girl she helped who needed a full facial skin graft. (Denham says the girl’s brother threw boiling hot water on her when she expressed wanting an education to become an English translator.) When she returned to the U.S., Denham had problems with crowds and loud noises, and certain smells—alcohol prep pads with blood, for one—would trigger her anxiety and the sudden impulse to leave.

It took years for her to admit to herself that she had PTSD. She first tried Zoloft for her depression. But she grew apathetic. She gained weight. So in August 2016, she decided to apply for a service dog at Brigadoon. And just three months later, she got a call back; they had found a potential match.

Mr. Chips can distract her when she’s in distress by nudging her arms with his nose and demanding her attention. He can also face the opposite direction to be an extra set of eyes for what’s happening behind her, and his company in moments when she wakes up from a nightmare helps her calm down quickly.

Denham with service dog Mr. Chips.

All of Brigadoon’s dogs are protected under federal law to accompany their owners into any establishment. But getting a service dog is an investment—Denham says each dog at Brigadoon costs about $30,000 to $40,000, most of it subsidized by the organization with $10,000 left for the civilian to pay. If you’re a military veteran, it’s $2,000. It can cost upwards of $50,000 for more rigorously trained dogs used for a more demanding service, like guide dogs for the blind, though organizations often provide them free of charge.

Seattleite Renae Goettel, partially blind due to a rare genetic disease, has had two service dogs. Her first was Lucy, a yellow lab who trained with Goettel, then 17, for four weeks at a guide dog campus in Boring, Oregon.

Because it became so common for pets to be put on airplanes, she says traveling with her dog became difficult, the distractions for the labs she’s relied on to keep her safe frustrating. While she no longer has a service dog, she believes it’s a big problem that more people are trying to bring pets into public places. The new state law, she says, is an important step.

Likewise, Denham says: “I hope it deters people from really trying to push the issue. It’s really important that the people who really need the dogs are treated with respect.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Denham to get a service dog. For one, she didn’t want to draw more attention to herself. For another, she felt guilty—why should she, a 39-year-old physically abled person, deserve a service dog when so many others might need it more? 

On October 12, 2015, three days before they were about to be married, ChrisTiana and Matt ObeySumner walked into a jewelry store in the Alderwood mall. Matt was peering at men’s wedding bands behind a counter. ChrisTiana was looking for a necklace to go with the bride’s dress. Then, suddenly, ChrisTiana fainted. When Matt looked up, he saw a group of women around his fiancée, who was on the floor of the store struggling to stand.

That’s how it started, ChrisTiana’s fainting spells growing more frequent over the course of several months. ChrisTiana (who prefers to be referred to by the personal pronouns they and them) would get dizzy, clammy.

At first, they thought their symptoms were due to stress levels: ChrisTiana getting married, planning a wedding, and not in good standing at work. But problems persisted months after the ceremony, even after a job change.

They resorted to doing their own research and found a rare condition that explained those symptoms, called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Most of their blood remains in the lower body, prompting ChrisTiana’s heart to race when they stand to pump more blood into the brain.

So in 2017, ChrisTiana saw their primary care doctor and told him what they thought. When the doctor doubted them, ChrisTiana insisted: “Give me the tilt table test.” Medical professionals strapped ChrisTiana’s body down on a table, starting out horizontally, tilting them up then down again while monitoring blood pressure. If ChrisTiana had POTS, their body would respond within minutes. ChrisTiana had a feeling it would lead to a diagnosis.

And sure enough, ChrisTiana was right. Small episodes happen on a daily basis. The major episodes—completely blacking out or fainting—can occur twice or three times a week, family members confirm. ChrisTiana sometimes blacks out on the bus ride home from downtown to North Seattle, missing their stop and waking up in Shoreline at night. Other times, they fall and hurt themself; in July, when the symptoms worsened again, they reported to the doctor having fallen twice in one week, one time having fainted in the middle of the street in Pioneer Square.

ChrisTiana ObeySumner, holding a staff to keep steady, fainted in Pioneer Square in the middle of the street in August 2018.

Image: Tori Dickson

So ChrisTiana talked to their cardiologist about a service animal. While the doctor was receptive at the time, even recommended one, he didn’t document any of the conversation on the form and instead emphasized ChrisTiana’s previous mental health problems. Matt, who works as a case manager at a rehabilitation center, says doctors often deny ChrisTiana’s symptoms exist.

ChrisTiana, who’s the vice chair of the Housing Committee in the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, says the law disregards those who can’t access a trained service animal, whether it’s because they have a difficult time proving their need, being taken seriously by doctors, or paying thousands of dollars for one. A 2016 study published by The Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing concluded that while black women have just as much awareness when they suffer from high blood pressure, they’re far less likely to be treated and have higher mortality rates than white women.

It’s a class and racial problem, ChrisTiana says—so the new state law essentially could be punitive, legitimizing one more privileged sector of the disabled population while punishing others.

ChrisTiana says they want a service animal. They’d benefit from one. Dogs can be trained to get help in the event that they faint, or can draw their attention to them when ChrisTiana begins to zone out.

Some dogs, attuned with their owners, can start to sense when their heart rates rise, or if they’re about to have an episode. But there’s more for ChrisTiana to consider—the cost, for one, and further standing out at, say, a grocery store when people of color are already concerned they’re more likely to get the police called on them while doing ordinary things. (Shaun Bickley, a disability rights activist and co-chair of the Commission for People with disAbilities with ChrisTiana, pointed to a Ruderman Family Foundation study that said up to half of people killed by police are disabled.)

“Even if I am able to get my service animal...then what’s it going to look like with a black woman running around with a dog?” ChrisTiana says.

As for the new state law, “Will they ask everyone, or will the implicit bias creep into this?”

"As a society, we’re becoming more and more progressive in terms of what people use their animals for,” says Goettel, the Seattle woman who no longer relies on service dogs but supports the new law. “You can’t really put it all into one basket.”

But facing an onslaught of headlines around exotic emotional support animals, United Airlines tightened its regulations shortly after the peacock was banned from one of its flights. Delta Airlines followed not long after, as did Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. In August, Southwest Airlines joined them by restricting permitted animals to dogs, horses, and cats. Disability rights activists in Seattle, in part, worry that it’s just another case of a few high-profile incidents leading to businesses ostracizing the many.

Alaska Airlines vehemently denies that’s what’s going on. There have been many cases, bad ones, that prompted the company to change its policy. The airline in May began requiring more forms for people who want to bring emotional support animals on flights.

“We have seen an increase in situations where people are abusing the policy and bringing untrained pets on board,” airline spokesperson Bobbie Egan told Seattle Met by email. “In several cases, these untrained pets have injured crew, flyers, and even service animals.”

And for Washington Food Industry Association’s Jan Gee, the execution of a law is less a concern than the current abuse. “It’s become a problem across the U.S. and not just for restaurants and grocery stories,” she says. “We’re waiting for change.”

ChrisTiana shared with me an opinion they acknowledge as controversial—that if someone feels the need to tote around a pet everywhere they go, that owner does in fact need it. That if an animal is providing a service, even untrained, it should be considered a service animal.

Laws can vary from city to state to institution: In private businesses, only service dogs or mini-horses—often used for stability by those with dog allergies or those who can’t use dogs for religious reasons—are protected under federal law. But the federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for landlords to refuse housing or require extra fines for a potential tenant’s service or emotional support animal, with some exceptions. And discrimination can occur even when there’s a law protecting these animals, like for rental housing.

“How am I supposed to legitimize this to my landlord when we’re in this rental market?” ChrisTiana says.

The new law, ChrisTiana says, is not about holding people accountable for lies but rather seems to show a lack of acceptance around each other’s needs.

“It’s about society. It’s about how we as a people interact with each other.”

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