When you see a dog wearing a bright vest that says “Service Dog”, it doesn’t always necessarily mean the dog is a certified service animal.
These service vests cost about $30 and can be easily purchased online. People can also buy patches that say “Medical Alert Service Dog” or “Hearing Alert Service Dog.”
Pam Albertson, a San Diego resident who owns a service dog named Cameo, said people that pretend to have service dogs don’t realize the damage that they are causing.
Kathy Maxfield, another disabled service dog owner, said she knows pet owners who put a vest on their dog, so they can simply take their dog with them anywhere. She said “it’s just pure wrong.” She added it makes it tough on people who have true disabilities and rely on trained service dogs.
Cracking down on people who pretend to have service dogs is almost impossible to stop. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects those who use service dogs from being harassed when they take their animals to public places.
It is against the law for a store owner to ask a person with a service dog what kind of disabilities he has. It also is against the law to ask for proof that the animal is a trained service dog. A service dog does not need to wear a vest or have professional training.
The only questions a business owner can ask is if the animal is a service animal and what tasks it can do.
Albertson has photo ID for Cameo, her service dog, when she is at work. In California, using a fake service dog is a misdemeanor, punishable by at least six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But this is incredibly difficult to enforce.
Due to the privacy protections, it is uncertain how many dogs are not truly service dogs. Organizations that train service dogs, service dogs owners and officials at the San Diego County Department of Animal Services all said it is a growing problem.
â€œLike anything else, people take advantage,â€ said Carol Davis of Paws’itive Teams, which trains service dogs in San Diego. â€œThere are dog owners who love their dogs and want them to go everywhere with them.â€
Dawn Danielson, director of the county Department of Animal Services, thinks that some of the pet owners who get assistance tags for their dogs are taking advantage of the safeguards that protect those with disabilities from uncomfortable questions.
The ADA prevents employees from asking if the person seeking the tag has a disability or if the dog has any specific training.
â€œWe can’t say, ‘Hey, that poodle doesn’t look like it can do all that much,’ â€ she said. â€œOur hands are tied.â€
In 2000, 82 tags were issued. In 2006, that number increased to 265.
Companies that sell service dog vests online also cannot question people when they buy vests. Customers simply abide by the honor code.
Some people may also believe they have a valid reason to bring their pets with them to public places to provide emotional support. Some doctors sign notes that say the dog plays an important role to the patient’s well being.
But some service dog trainers question this and argue the dogs aren’t specifically trained to do anything.
Davis said these dogs haven’t gone through the extensive training required of a working service dog. If the dog behaves poorly, it leaves a bad public perception of service dogs. Business owners can ask a person with any dog, even legitimate service dogs, to leave if the animal is acting up.
A service’s dog accreditation isn’t mandated by any government agency. A person can self-train their dog, even if the owner may not have the expertise or proper background to train dogs.
Determining the legitimacy of service dogs is even more complicated by conflicts over emotional support dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, emotional support dogs are not trained service dogs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation ruled in 2003 that animals that provide emotional support are allowed on airline flights. Also some courts have ruled that people with emotional support animals can’t be denied apartments that prohibit pets.
The Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations is lobbying the federal government to change the Americans With Disabilities Act’s definition of a service animal. To qualify, an animal would have to be trained to mitigate a person’s disability, according to the definition sought by the coalition. That definition states that an animal providing â€œcomfortâ€ would not qualify.
Finding a solution will be difficult because everyone agrees that people with disabilities shouldn’t have to answer demeaning and challenging questions, said Corey Hudson, director of Canine Companions for Independence.