California resident Theresa Stern knows first-hand the value of service dogs. The vice president of Outreach, Admissions, and Alumni Services for the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind uses a guide dog named Wills, a yellow Labrador retriever who acts as her eyes, increasing her independence by guiding her through daily life.
“I travel much better using a guide dog,” Stern says. “I’m more confident [than when using a cane]…and having a guide dog can also make you more accessible to human interactions. I know if I’m in an airport, I only have to wait a few seconds before someone says, ‘What a beautiful dog,’ and I can say, ‘Oh thank you! And where is Gate 7A?’ or whatever. So that connection is super important.”
Wills is a service dog—not a pet. A service dog is trained to provide a service to a person with a disability, such as vision impairment, hearing loss, or mobility issues. A service dog can be trained to alert when its handler is about to have a seizure, calm a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, retrieve items for a handler in a wheelchair, remind someone with mental illness to take his or her medication, and many other skills. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, service animals are permitted everywhere members of the public are allowed to go, including restaurants, hotels, stores, movie theaters, and other businesses.
That level of public access has led to a boom in people buying fake service dog vests and pretending to have a disability, something that concerns Stern professionally and personally. When fraudulent service dogs misbehave in public places by urinating, growling or acting out of control, they upset business owners and patrons and create prejudice against service dogs as a whole.
“I get the idea that people love Fido so much, but impersonating a person with a disability is just unethical,” Stern says.
But it’s incredibly easy to buy a fake service dog vest or fake ID cards online for less than $50—a Google search of “buy service dog vests” yields more than 1 million hits—and to lie about having a disability. To prevent discrimination and protect the privacy of people with disabilities, the ADA does not require service dog handlers to carry identification or documents about their dogs, and business owners can only ask two questions: “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
“They can’t ask for any license or certification or any of that kind of stuff,” Stern says. “So it makes it easy for people to sneak their pet dogs into places where normally pets aren’t allowed, or to avoid a pet deposit or fee at a hotel.”
Though business owners can ask any misbehaving service dog to be removed—the ADA says handlers must remain in control at all times, and service dogs must be housebroken—many business owners are wary of potential lawsuits or fines. Instead, some argue to restrict access for service dogs, even legitimate ones; in February 2015, a lawmaker even introduced a bill to the Arizona House of Representatives that would have permitted restaurants to ban all service dogs.
The bill was defeated, but it’s evidence of an increasing backlash against fraudulent service dogs.
“I love animals, we all do, but if you take them out and they’re not used to being out and they’re not well-behaved in public, that type of thing can start to diminish the legitimacy of a real service animal and then my ability to get out with a disability,” Stern says. “So that’s a real concern.”
Fraudulent service dogs have also impacted Stern on a personal level. On a bus in San Francisco, a dog growled and lunged at her guide dog and the owner said, “Well, that’s OK because this is my service dog.” But Stern countered that no legitimate service dog would act like that in public—they have hundreds of hours (sometimes a year or more) of training to prevent such behavior.
“And I’ve been noticing lately, [when] it’s pretty obvious my dog is a guide dog and I’m blind, I’m getting asked more, ‘Is that really a service animal?’ At the airport the other day, three different airport employees asked me, ‘Is that a service animal?’ because they’re getting so many people trying to sneak [dogs] onto airplanes without having to pay the pet fee,” she says. “So it’s definitely starting to become a problem.”
Stern hopes pet owners will do the right thing and not try to cheat the system, and that business owners will educate themselves about their rights and be suspicious of potentially fraudulent service dogs when they act out.
“Most people I run into are super awesome and great,” Stern says. “But it’s just a few [who] could ruin it for the rest of us, so we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Though freelance journalist Jen Reeder is a self-proclaimed “crazy dog lady” who travels with her dog to pet-friendly hotels and asks if she can bring him to parties, she is vexed when pet owners pretend to need a service dog.