Is that service dog a fake? Under federal law, you can't even ask
By MARK DAVIS | The Kansas City Star | Published: November 3, 2017
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The unleashed dog lunged from the woman's lap and right at Andy, Michaela Chase's dog.
"It was going for blood," Chase said, thinking back to the narrow waiting room at her physical therapy gym in Lincoln, Neb. "It was in full attack mode."
Shielded by Chase's wheelchair, Andy avoided the other dog, which had a tag on its collar that said "service dog." But though there was no fight, the damage was done.
"It really ruined Andy," Chase said of her service dog trained by Paws for Freedom Inc. in Tonganoxie, Kan. Andy -- the victim of a fake service dog, Chase said -- now distrusts other dogs. He'll even bark at other service dogs.
Fake service dogs are essentially untrained pets wearing vests or tags purchased online so Fido can tag along, too. They've become the bane of those who rely on trained service dogs to deal with disabilities.
Service dog owners take video of apparent impostors tugging at leashes in malls, groceries and other public venues. They record threatening fakes and describe attacks on their dogs.
Bloggers rail about fakes and fakers making people suspicious of real service dogs.
"When the fake service dog acts out like that, it hurts those that are legitimate," said Sandy Bartkoski, co-CEO of KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc. in Washington, Kan.
Yet, trainers and advocates say there is no organized push to cinch up legislative loopholes that leave fakes largely unchecked or to resolve contradictions in federal laws that add to the confusion about what's real and what's not.
The result is an honor system that allows fakers as much easy access as owners of real service dogs.
Merchants say they're largely powerless in the presence of a fake. If someone says their dog is a service dog, there's little room to challenge them.
"The business owner is kind of at the mercy of the customer," said Bill Teel, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association.
Many are willing to take advantage of the honor system that surrounds the use of service dogs.
Online sites sell "service dog" vests and tags, issue certificates denoting an animal as a service dog, and operate service dog registries -- all designed to make any animal appear to be a service dog. Packages range from $50 to $250.
"These documents do not convey any rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal," said the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in its answers to frequently asked questions about the act.
But there they are, and some sellers make little secret of the notion that they're selling imagery rather than legitimacy.
USA Service Dog Registration, one of those online sites, offers advice for anyone wondering how to make a dog a service dog.
"If your service dog is not fully trained to help with a certain condition we recommend buying the service dog gear," the site says, just above a link to its online store with vests, certificates, tags, collars and more.
Professionally trained service dogs help people with impaired vision or hearing, seizures, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer's and other conditions. Trainers may need years to turn puppies into focused animals able to handle any social or physical situation they encounter while performing specific tasks for owners.
Personality even comes into it. A guide dog needs to be assertive, ready to stop its owner from doing something that will put him in danger.
Josh Lewis, 40, has lived with the after-effects of a brain aneurism for more than a decade. Six months ago, his life got a little easier.
Bing came into it.
"I don't go anywhere without him," Lewis said of the sleepy looking Labrador retriever at his feet.
They've been to Minnesota and Hannibal, Mo., ridden through Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, taken in more mundane sites such as the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Liberty and made regular trips to his physical therapy at North Kansas City Hospital.
The dog works quietly and stays out of sight, perhaps under the table, when they're out. Off duty, he's a dog keen on tug of war, fetch and other playtime fun.
Bing helps Lewis walk, made difficult by paralysis on his right side. Lewis has been able to put away his cane and he walks faster with Bing.
A list of 19 short commands include "brace" to take Lewis' weight if he needs help getting up, "step one" to go up or down one stair, and "tap it" to open electronic doors designed for easy access.
Lewis got his service dog free from KSDS Assistance Dogs. But training is expensive.
"Our dogs are around $25,000 when they leave," Bartkoski said. "We've given somewhere around $14.3 million in dogs away."
Other dogs don't require the precise training that service dogs need.
Passive dogs are well suited to another role, that of therapy dogs that might work in facilities. They work at or visit schools, nursing homes and other sites that permit them, often providing calming and therapeutic time with individuals or groups. Facility dogs help the public generally but are not covered by public access rights that apply to service dogs.
Then there is a third category: emotional support animals. These may be dogs, cats or other animals that provide comfort by their presence and generally aren't trained for that job. A federal aviation law recognizes emotional support animals and protects their owners' right to fly with the animals in the cabin, though the airline requires documentation as proof. An American Airlines spokesman said the carrier "has seen an increase in the number of passengers traveling with emotional support animals."
Similarly, federal housing law acknowledges assistance animals to include emotional support animals.
KSDS Assistance Dogs is a nonprofit program that runs mostly on donations and grants. It has a two- to three-year waiting list.
KSDS is among more than 100 nonprofit assistance dog training programs accredited by Assistance Dogs International Inc. in Ohio. The organization is working now on creating standards for training dogs to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"The need has pretty much exploded across the country as well as interest around the world," said Chris Diefenthaler, the international group's operations administrator.
At graduation, such programs typically provide a vest for the dog and a certificate for the owner. Paws for Freedom, where Andy was trained, also gives owners information about the ADA to help educate others "in case they are questioned," said Lea Ann Shearer, the company's executive director.
Neither the vest from the accredited training program nor the certificate is required under the ADA.
The ADA says anyone can train their dog, or miniature horse, to perform a task that mitigates or helps them with their disability. Professional training is not required.
ADA also specifically prohibits cities, merchants and others from requiring proof that a dog is a service dog. It allows, in fact, only two questions.
Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Service dog owners may not be asked about the nature of their disability. They may not be required to provide documentation of the dog's training. Nor may they be asked to demonstrate the work the dog is trained to do.
All this helps ensure that Americans who rely on service dogs have the same easy access as anyone who walks up to a salad bar, into a bowling alley, through grocery aisles or onto an airplane.
Every few months, Tim Ryan sees the honor system surrounding service animals tested. Someone will bring what seems to be a fake service dog into the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kan., where he is director of sales. And he'll check, usually without success.
"When we ask these questions, and they answer to them, we're at a road block," he said. "That's what I've found is probably the biggest difficulty for us. We can't really ask much more than that."
So far, the service dog training industry is willing to let the honor system stand. Changes to the ADA might help but are not a priority.
"It's certainly on our radar," Diefenthaler said. "I can't say at this point, though, we have any coordinated efforts to do anything."
There have been successful efforts to push for state laws against fakes.
Nineteen states have statutes against service animal misrepresentation, according to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at the University of Michigan. Violations typically call for misdemeanor charges, community service or fines.
Massachusetts vies to become the 20th on the list, but these laws seem seldom used. Checks with local prosecutors found no prosecutions.
Journalists frequently take on the task of proving how easy it is to maneuver around with a fake service animal.
A writer for The New Yorker paraded a menagerie of beasts around town -- turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca and pig -- for a piece that asked "Why are so many animals now in places where they shouldn't be?"
CBS News trotted out a news staffer's pet and a borrowed pig to show that faking it works.
Both of these undercover reporters pretended the pets were service or emotional support animals.
Often the public and even fakers don't know the difference.
For example, one woman posted a video in which she confronts a man with a dog in a shopping cart. The dog's vest says "service animal" but the man says the dog just makes people happy and that he bought the vest just to take the dog into stores.
"You know that's illegal," she says.
For Chase, who said her service dog, Andy, will never be the same, it's not only illegal. It can be dangerous to go to public places with a fake service dog.
She got another service dog, Kaplan, in mid-2016. Chase said she still takes Andy on nearby errands now and then, keeping an eye out for other dogs.
"Otherwise, he gets depressed," Chase said. "He needs to know he's still working."