Service Dog Industry Hurt by People Using Fake IDs to Travel with Pets
By Chris Stewart, New York Times
DAYTON, Ohio -- Stretching the rules to take pets into grocery stores, amusement parks and restaurants has become so commonplace that online merchants are selling official-looking service animal certificates and vests for as little as $50.
Those wanting to fly with their furry friends can also buy a mental health diagnosis online at those same websites.
The growing practice is insulting and harmful to those who genuinely require a service animal, said Karen Shirk, executive director of 4 Paws for Ability, which has trained more than 1,000 service dogs for disabled children.
"Faking service dogs is one of the worst things anybody can do," said Shirk, who founded the Xenia, Ohio, non-profit. "It's infuriating on so many levels. Just the thought that somebody would -- the same as the handicap placards in the cars -- take advantage of something that was supposed to make a disabled person's life easier."
People get away with it because the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) generally provides that businesses must take at face value a person's word that an accompanying dog helps an individual overcome a physical barrier or provide warning or allay an episode related to a brain disorder, Shirk said.
In general, businesses can only ask if a service animal is needed because of a disability. Handlers can be told to take animals outside if they create a health hazard or become disruptive.
"When they made the ADA, I believe their intent was to make it as easy as possible for a disabled person to access the community," Shirk said.
An imposter is often easy to spot because phony service dogs growl at people, bark at other dogs or refuse to take commands, said Donna Sword, president of the Cin-Day Chapter of Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based organization that has a regional training facility in Delaware, Ohio.
A well-trained and handled service dog will stay focused on the job, Sword said.
"These dogs stay on task the entire time," said Sword, a volunteer puppy trainer for the national organization. "They're not distracted by wanting to see somebody across the room to be petted or if another service dog is in the room."
Kurt Feldmann, whose 19-year-old son Konrad has used two service dogs over a decade, has noticed a negative shift in public perception during recent years.
"Over the last four or five years I would say it's more radically changed," said Feldmann of Liberty Township, Ohio. "People are a little bit more suspicious of service dogs. We go to a lot of different places and we see people with dogs with vests and they are really pretty fraudulent service dogs."
Konrad's spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy prohibits use of his arms and legs. Like other true working service animals, his current dog, Liza, a yellow Labrador retriever, was raised from birth and rigorously trained to meet the needs of a person with disabilities. Konrad's mother, Kristen, went through an intensive two-week "boot camp" to get acclimated to the dog and learn the commands.
Raising and training a service animal can cost as much as $35,000 to $50,000.
Feldmann is concerned those faking it might chip away at his son's access to public accommodations.
"We have these specially bred, elite service dogs that have devoted their first two years of their lives and cost tens of thousands of dollars ... and we're looked at in the same light as these imposters," he said. "Because some people are just buying a vest for a few dollars online and passing them off as service dogs, we're worried that people who really need assistance dogs face added discrimination."
Tinge of discrimination
Elizabeth Burns of Beavercreek, Ohio, said her family has felt a tinge of discrimination while entering businesses with her son Jesse, 6, and his service dog, Squirt.
"It was very frustrating when we had to explain ourselves. We have it easier because we have a son who is in a power wheelchair and who is non-verbal," Burns said. "I can't imagine the people who have children that look normal, if you will. They probably have it way worse than we do."
Squirt entered the family's life in September from 4 Paws for Ability and has already been able to detect when Jesse is nearing a seizure, said the boy's father, Jerry Burns.
"(Squirt) can sense when things are out of whack with Jesse's body. He starts licking his face, his hands, his neck and we know either if he's not not already feeling well it's probably not going to be long before he's having a seizure or migraine," he said. "That's helpful to know so he's not driving his wheelchair."
The Burns family has also encountered suspect service dogs, like the "horribly behaved" dog that climbed up on a cart to get at food at the grocery store. The owner gave a command that would be contradictory to any trained service dog, Elizabeth said.
"(The owner) told it to 'sit down' and 'sit' and 'down' are two different commands," she said. "'Sit' means for it to sit and 'down' means for it to lay down on the floor."
'We've been very lucky'
Crystal Sprowl said her family was treated "like a sideshow" once they were finally seated at a Springfield, Ohio, restaurant after her husband, Stephen, had
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