By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop and you see a dog wearing a vest. It looks like a service dog but it’s barking, pulling on its leash or eating table scraps. God forbid it has peed on the floor.
Chances are it’s a fake service dog, its owner illegally attempting to pass it off as a legitimate medical device.
The problem of fake service dogs is one that’s cropping up in cities across the country, including our own, where one trainer and handler says she recently spotted three at the same big-box store in just one week.
The trouble stems from a lack of clear-cut laws regarding service animals, along with store managers’ understandable reluctance to question the canines’ authenticity for fear of offending someone with a legitimate medical need. Further, a quick Google search for “service dog vest” brings up dozens of options, including one for just 99 cents, meaning just about anyone can costume their pooch as one hard at work and take it along for a day at the mall or to their favorite restaurant.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s laws regarding service dogs, employees of any business are only allowed to ask two specific questions in situations where it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal. Those questions are (1): “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and (2): “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Staff members are not allowed to require that the dog demonstrate its task, nor can they inquire about the nature of its handler’s disability.
Service dogs are not required to carry paperwork identifying themselves as such, and the ADA does not require them to wear a vest, ID tag or specific harness.
“There are so many gray areas,” says Sally Irvin, interim executive director for Assistance Dogs International, pointing out that laws vary even from state to state. She notes that according to the ADA, “To portray yourself as somebody with a disability is against the law,” but points out that only 19 states have laws specifically making it a crime to fraudulently represent a person with the right to be accompanied by a service animal. Ohio is not one of them.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask.
For starters, it takes an awful lot of training to become a bona fide service dog. A run-in with a fake, who might be barking or lunging at the working service dog, will bring a distraction from its duties, Irvin says. Service dogs are trained to perform any number of important tasks, including alerting their handler when their blood sugar reaches dangerous levels or detecting the onset of a seizure, and they must remain focused on the task at hand.
“People taking fake service dogs out in the community, it really does severe damage to those of us who have them and need them,” says Michele Frank, owner of Pawsible Angels, a Findlay nonprofit organization that trains service dogs.
Not only is it a distraction to the dog, but a fake service dog acting badly damages the public’s perception of the real thing, Frank says. If a dog is barking and lunging at customers inside a store, “What’s your immediate impression now of service dogs?” she asks. “‘Oh my God, not another service dog.'”
“I think we would all feel a little bit differently if these dogs were well-behaved,” agreed Irvin.
Louis Belluomini of Findlay has a year-and-a-half-old service dog named Star, trained to provide 360-degree cover to her handler, a veteran with severe PTSD and anxiety, while he’s on-duty as a paramedic or anytime he’s in public.
Belluomini is glad service dogs are gaining in popularity, as they’re allowing people with varying disabilities greater freedoms and, such as was his case, the ability to reduce the amount of medications they take. But he, too, has seen what he believes to be fake service dogs in public, including a pit bull exiting a grocery store in Findlay, with no vest identifying it as such.
Having worked with a trained service dog for about a year now, Belluomini says he would never trust even the most well-behaved pet dog inside a store, for fear it might bite someone or have an accident on the floor.
“It’s not easy to change that demeanor in a dog. It takes a lot of training and work,” he says. “There’s a lot that goes into it and it’s discouraging to think that people could ruin it for all of us.”
Frank says it’s offensive and disrespectful for an able-bodied person to pass off a pet dog as a service animal. She says just as you wouldn’t walk with a cane or a crutch or use a wheelchair without a legitimate need, you shouldn’t be so cruel as to mock someone with a service dog.
“Everyone wants to take their dog with them. That’s the crux of the problem,” she says.