Fake service dogs, real problems

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Service dogs can make life better for people with disabilities. They help guide their humans, alert them to sounds and pick up dropped items, all while providing companionship.

But service dogs and their owners face discrimination and being turned away by businesses and people who have had problems with other animals. In many cases, the troublemakers have been pets that people have tried to pass off as service animals — even though they haven’t undergone any special training.

Laura Palacio of Charlotte, North Carolina, must use a wheelchair because of a disability. She received her service dog, Bauer II, from the California-based Canine Companions for Independence in May 2014. With Bauer, Palacio also received a permit verifying that the dog had completed rigorous training to qualify as a service animal.

CCI is a nationwide program that provides assistance dogs at no charge to its recipients. The permit that graduates are provided resembles a driver’s license and includes the dog’s breed, a permit number and an expiration date and is kept in the dog’s vest. Because CCI is accredited under Assistance Dogs International, it is allowed to certify its graduates and provide the permits. But, there is no federal registration or license for service dogs.

ADI accredits programs that train service, therapy, guide and hearing dogs worldwide. Over 125 programs have been accredited by ADI, and each is required to recertify every five years. A database is available on ADI’s website.

Palacio said she had stopped going out about four years before getting Bauer, after a stranger abruptly sat in her lap, laughing. She said she is grateful for Bauer and that he’s one of the best things that has happened in her life. “He’s the one that got me back out into public.”

However, Palacio is frustrated with untrained, fraudulent service dogs being in stores where pets aren’t allowed. She had noticed people with their dogs in their purses and shopping carts, but didn’t really understand the problem until after getting Bauer.

CCI’s magazine for its graduates and volunteers, The Companion, has compiled statistics on fraudulent service dog encounters.

According to a 2016 survey, 77 percent of CCI graduates had an encounter with a fraudulent or out-of-control service dog. Over a quarter had 10 or more encounters, and more than half had their CCI service dog bitten, snapped at or distracted by one of these dogs.

Palacio said many businesses are unaware of their rights when it comes to aggressive or unruly service animals. They think there’s nothing they can do about such dogs and may fear being sued by angry customers.

“My belief is that most stores are afraid of being sued by a customer in the small chance that a poorly behaved dog turns out to really be a SD,” said Mike Herman, another CCI service dog recipient.

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that service dogs must be leashed and under control. It says a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove their service animal from a premises unless the dog is out of control or is not housebroken. However, when removing the service dog for a legitimate reason, a business must give the owner the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal.

Palacio has seen many misbehaving dogs in places where pets aren’t allowed, barking and urinating. She said dogs in grocery carts have tried to attack Bauer.

“I’ve had people tell me they didn’t even know my dog was under the table,” Palacio said. “And I said, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to know my dog is under the table. He must be doing his job.’”

The concerns about fake or problematic service animals voiced by Palacio and others have drawn attention from officials as well. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring recently filed suit in Madison County against Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a company that describes itself as selling highly trained service animals that assist with a variety of tasks, including diabetic alerts, according to The Washington Post. Herring said the state sued, alleging violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions law, after receiving more than 50 customer complaints. The dogs range in price from $18,000 to $27,000. Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers is not accredited by ADI.

“Our investigation shows that, in many instances, Service Dogs was simply selling a $25,000 pet, leaving customers with a huge bill and no protection against a potentially life-threatening blood sugar situation,” Herring said in a news release.

An attorney for the company told The Post it denied the allegations, that it has already been working with the attorney general’s office to resolve concerns and that it has many satisfied customers.

Kim Wilson of Farmington, New Mexico, has had three service dogs from CCI. Her first dog had to be retired after a year and a half of work because the animal was attacked by a fake service dog. Her second service dog was attacked twice by fraudulent service dogs in a mall in Grand Junction, Colorado. Each time, the mall security removed the aggressive dogs.

Wilson said her third dog was attacked at a craft store by an emotional support dog. She said the dog was unleashed when it jumped out of its owner’s purse and chased them down, two aisles away.

“I spoke with management and explained that this little faker went after a legit service dog that cost about $50,000 to raise, train and socialize,” Wilson said. “I kindly asked who I should sue for damages the next time — the dog owner, or them, for allowing a pet in a store.”

Some businesses have employees who attempt to deny access to a service dog. Wilson said that with her second service dog, Kilworth, she was questioned by the stores of one discount chain in three states.

Palacio said that at a yogurt shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, an employee told her to leave because “my boss said no dogs are allowed in this store.”

Palacio said she then pulled out her permit, telling the employee that Bauer was a legal service dog and could go anywhere she could “except an operating room.” The employee then grabbed the leash “and tried to pull my dog outside the store while I was trying to turn around in my electric chair to get my dog back from him.”

Another customer stood up and grabbed the leash back from the employee, telling him he couldn’t take Bauer away from Palacio.

Palacio called the company’s headquarters and the store’s owner, offering to bring brochures and train employees. The owner told Palacio that she could handle the training herself.

Palacio said she told the store owner that if she was ever treated that way again, she would pack the yogurt shop with service dog handlers and their dogs. “And then I’m going to call the police and have whoever tries to kick us out arrested.”

These days, it’s easy to go online and buy a certificate and a vest that describes a dog as a service animal. The cost can range from $80 to $200, depending on how much merchandise is purchased.

The ADA’s website states that the service animal registration documents sold online are not recognized as proof that the dog is a service animal, and they do not convey any rights under the ADA.

The differences among service, emotional support and therapy animals are often unknown or muddled.

According to the ADA, service animals are dogs specifically trained to perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability. For the physically disabled, a common task is picking up such dropped items as cellphones, credit cards and keys. By law, according to the ADA, service dogs are allowed anywhere open to the general public.

Emotional support animals are not specially trained for any tasks, and do not have the same access as service dogs. They are not allowed in places that prohibit pets. According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords can request documentation from a therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist as proof that the animal is an emotional support animal.

Under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals are listed under the definition of assistance animals. Because tenants are protected from discrimination based on disabilities, their emotional support animals or service dogs cannot be prohibited under breed, weight and pet restrictions. Such animals are also allowed on airplanes under the Air Carrier Access Act with the proper documentation.

Most businesses don’t realize that emotional support dogs do not have public access rights. Palacio said emotional support dogs are more comparable to her pet dog at home.

“They don’t have all the disability privileges that my dog has because of me,” Palacio said. “See, they seem to think my dog has privileges, but it’s I who has the privileges. And because I have the privileges, Bauer in turn is certified.”

CCI graduates receive flyers to hand out to businesses and people that explain the difference in types of assistance dogs. They also provide flyers on service dog fraud.

ADI provides an international guide to assistance dog laws covering the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

CCI trains four different types of assistance dogs: service, hearing and facility dogs, and skilled companions.

Service dogs perform specific tasks to help adults who have physical disabilities. Their skills include picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors and cabinets and turning lights on and off. Hearing dogs are trained to alert their hearing-impaired handlers to important sounds.

Facility dogs, also known as therapy dogs, work with clients in education, criminal justice, health care or visitation settings. They are handled by a professional in those fields, who is responsible for the dog at home and taking the animal to the workplace. Dogs can be used in courts, for example, to help a person overcome anxiety associated with testifying in trials about difficult experiences.

In March, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation approved by the General Assembly to allow a “certified facility dog” to aid a witness testifying in criminal proceedings. To qualify, the dog must have completed training and been certified by a program accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

This story was produced by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.