Suspicious Species

Service dogs and emotional support animals provide crucial assistance to people with disabilities in many areas of life. As the number of these assistance animals continues to grow, however, so does public suspicion about abuse of law and faking the need for such accommodations. Legislators have been directly reactive to this moral panic, and the majority of states have passed laws to combat the misrepresentation of pets as assistance animals. Consequently, people with disabilities who use service dogs feel the need to signal compliance to avoid harassment, questioning, or exclusion from spaces that do not allow pets. Taking an empirical law and psychology approach, this Article concerns itself with the possible sources of the phenomenon of misrepresentation, which I term “assistance-animal disability con.” The Article also discusses the stigmatizing consequences of the suspicion surrounding faking the need to use assistance animals for the disability community. The Article shows that 1) people with disabilities who use service dogs signal their protected status using extra-legal norms that did not originally appear in federal legislation. They use accessories that indicate legality such as vests and choose breeds of dogs that have traditionally been associated with service; 2) the public has been most trusting of these visible signs of compliance in the form of vests indicating the authenticity of a service dog; 3) in return, the legal system at the state level has adopted those extra-legal norms and translated them into black letter law through a reciprocal model of rulemaking; and 4) the psychological mechanism of “bounded ethicality” can explain people’s engagement with assistance-animal disability con. People who misrepresent their pets as assistance animals seem to not see their acts as unethical or illegal because the victims in the situation, people with disabilities, remain unrecognized in these people’s eyes. Based on these original findings, this Article argues for legal reform and for the use of tools from the field of behavioral psychology to restore trust in the practice of employing assistance animals to support the needs of millions of Americans with disabilities. The suggested analysis extends beyond disability law, offering a deeper understanding of the relationship between social norms, new laws, and ethical decision-making.

a. Associate Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law.

This Article has been recognized as the 2019 Best Scholarship by a Junior Faculty in the study of compliance, awarded by ComplianceNET and was the first prize winner of the 2019 Steven M. Block Civil Liberties Award, awarded by Stanford Law School. The data collection was generously supported by the Laboratory for the Study of American Values at Stanford University led by Michael Tomz and Paul Sniderman, the Diversity Dissertation Research Grant awarded by Stanford University’s Vice Provost for Graduate Education, the Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society graduate fellowship, the Stanford Constitutional Law Center Bradley fellowship, and the Perla & Samuel Rubinstein Scholarship for Disability Studies and Universal Design awarded by the Alin Beit Noam Institute for Disability Studies. I would like to give special thanks to my incredible doctoral committee of Robert MacCoun, Susan Schweik, Bernadette Meyler, Rabia Belt, and Hazel Markus, as well as to Nina Kohn and Robin Paul Malloy, for providing a close reading and excellent feedback on later drafts. For helpful suggestions, guidance and support I would like to thank Ruth Colker, Yaron Covo, Christine Demetros, Liz Emens, Yuval Feldman, Adam D. Fine, Daniel Goldberg, Lauryn Gouldin, Andrew S. Greenberg, Amari Hammonds, Deborah Hensler, Nicole Huberfeld, Elizabeth Katz, Zachary D. Kaufman, Asaf Kletter, Phill Malone, Amanda Mireles, Josephine Sandler Nelson, Riana Pfefferkorn, Emily Polk, Mical Raz, Heather Rothman, Benjamin van Rooij, Melissa Rorie, David Sherman, Geoff Sigalet, Shirin Sinnar, Michael Ashley Stein, Danielle Stokes, Mark Storslee, and Lauren MacIvor Thompson. This paper benefited from discussions with the participants in the following forums: the Law & Emotions CRN panel at the Law & Society Association Annual Meeting in Washington DC (2019), the 2019 ComplianceNet Conference on Business Ethics, the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine’s Working Group on “Malingering and Health Policy” (2020), and Northwestern Law’s Empirical Animal Law Workshop organized by David Dana (2021). Thank you to the members of the J.S.D. program at Stanford Law School for the engagement with this work and their helpful feedback as well as to Tishyra Randell, Jennifer Duffy and the other University of Illinois Law Review editors for their terrific work on this Article. Finally, I would like to thank the anonymous interviewees for this research for sharing their experiences with me.

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