LOS ANGELES – Its an easy law to break, and dog cheats do. By strapping a vest or backpack that says service animal to their pet, anyone can go in stores and restaurants where other dogs are banned, creating growing problems for the disabled community and business owners and leading to calls for better identifying the real deal.
Those with disabilities are worried about privacy and the safety of their highly trained service dogs, while business owners are concerned about health violations and damage to merchandise from impostors abusing the system.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, its 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. Its even more difficult because no papers are legally required for real service dogs. Often, people who want to take their pets into restaurants or retail stores just go online to buy vests, backpacks or ID cards with a service animal insignia.
The law says those entering businesses with animals can be asked just two questions: Is this a service dog? What is it trained to do for you?
Corey Hudson, chief executive officer of Canine Companions for Independence in San Rafael and president of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of training schools, is leading the effort to get the U.S. Department of Justice involved. He started writing to the agency 18 months ago but has not received a response.
Hudson wants to open talks and explore ways to identify the real from the phony. But the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners in Michigan worries that bringing in the Justice Department could set back access rights won by those with disabilities in the past 20 years.
While we deplore those who might be so unethical as to impersonate a disabled person by dressing their dog up as a service animal, we equally deplore the frenzy of alarm being stirred up about the risk of such abuse, said Joan Froling, chairwoman of the association.
There is a big difference in the behavior of real service dogs and impostors inside businesses, experts said. A true service dog becomes nearly invisible. Pets might bark, urinate, sniff, scratch and eat off the floor.
Business owners also face problems. In August, Russell Ireland banned a dog from his Oxford, Mass., diner after its owner put a plate of food on the floor for the dog.
James Glasser claimed it was a legitimate service animal and took part in a boycott of the diner. There was talk of a lawsuit. Ireland apologized. The dogs actual status is unclear. Business is just now returning to normal.
Marv Tuttle, a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said he believes he spots phony service dogs two or three times a week. He has also experienced the other side. Tuttle uses a service dog, Yara, because of a spinal cord injury from a traffic accident, and he and his wife were once stopped from entering a furniture store. A girl greeted us and said shed be glad to hold my dog outside, he said.
The clerk told them that two weeks earlier, a fake urinated on several expensive Indian carpets.
In terms of solving the problem, Tuttle doesnt think any kind of legislation will work.
They can write new laws, but there is no way to enforce them. We dont have enough police to stop murders, much less stop people from hauling around pseudo service dogs, he said.