Imposter service animals are a surprising new problem. It’s an easy law to break, and dog cheats do, says Fox affiliate KTTV Los Angeles on Thursday. Individuals are going online to obtain vests for their dogs that display “Service Animal,” then strapping them to their household pets in order to receive preferential treatment.
In fact, a Google search for “service animal vests” yields over a thousand available to buy, without any sort of proof or validation that you have been granted a trained service animal.
NPR profiled Lauren Henderson, a Malibu, Calif. woman who has mobility problems and relies on her Saint Bernard, "Phoebe," to assist her.
“She's basically like a living walker,” Henderson says, adding that she can spot a “fake” guide dog instantly.
“I know how service dogs are trained, though, and I know the behavior they're meant to display in public and [the behavior they] definitely are not [meant to display],” she says. Referring to a dog that runs up to people, pees, barks incessantly or sniffs every which way, Henderson says, “That's not a service dog.”
A brisk business has now developed in the sale of bogus service animal certificates and vests. Part of the problem is that federal law severely limits the ability of business owners or anyone else to question someone’s right to be using a service animal.
“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it's a federal crime to use a fake dog. And about a fourth of all states have laws against service animal misrepresentation. But privacy protections built into the laws make it nearly impossible to prosecute offenders. It's even more difficult because no papers are legally required for real service dogs.”
The ADA says a person using a service animal can be asked only two questions: Is that a service dog? And: What is it trained to do for you? Realistically however, most individuals hesitate to say anything, and instead simply watch the so-called service animal create a ruckus, scratch, urinate on the floor and damage merchandise.
There needs to be a standard, said Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants. “The sticky part is who will do the testing and what will be the criteria for allowing dogs to be considered assistance dogs,” Arnold says.
Real service dogs are also put at risk by imposters. While service dogs are docile and trained not to confront other dogs, a fake guide dog will behave much like any dog, confronting and even making aggressive advances on the other animal.
Wallis Brozman, 27, of Santa Rosa, Calif. has dystonia, a movement disorder that has left her wheelchair bound and unable to speak well. Her service dog, Caspin, responds to English and sign language.
“When my dog is attacked by an aggressive dog, he is not sure what to do about it and looks to me. It becomes a safety issue, not only for my dog, the target of the attack, but for me if I am between the dogs,” Brozman said.
Business owners also are put into difficult situations as they attempt to ascertain if a person is using an actual guide dog. In August, Russell Ireland banned a man and his dog from his “Big I’s” diner in Oxford, Mass., because the dog’s owner was putting the restaurant’s plates on the floor and allowing the dog to eat off of them, something that other customers obviously do not want to see.
Ireland said he didn't believe “Jack” was a service dog assigned to military veteran James Glaser because Glaser allowed people to pet and feed Jack, which is not in line with the training given to the dog’s owners.
Lauren Henderson says the imposter dogs are making it harder for legitimate service dogs, like Phoebe, to do what they need to so. “It makes service dogs look bad,” she says. “Everyone thinks I'm a faker now.”