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Four-Legged Impostors Give Service Dog Owners Pause

Sep 11, 2013
Originally published on September 11, 2013 7:54 am

Lauren Henderson goes everywhere with her service dog Phoebe — to the grocery store, Disneyland, the beach. For Henderson, who used to be paralyzed, her 100 pound, lumbering Saint Bernard is a necessity.

An actor who lives in Malibu, Calif., Henderson uses her dog for stability and balance. And if she falls, Phoebe helps pull her back on her feet.

"She's basically like a living walker," Henderson says.

Lately, Henderson has noticed more dogs wearing vests that label them as service animals, but she can tell they're different from Phoebe. They'll shake, pee, bark incessantly or growl at people.

"I know how service dogs are trained, though, and I know the behavior they're meant to display in public and definitely are not," she says. "And that's not a service dog."

A service dog is highly trained to perform a specific task for its disabled owner. It's different from a therapy dog, which comforts the sick and elderly, or an emotional support animal, which soothes anxiety.

But a dog wearing a vest might not be any of those things. For people wanting to take their pets wherever they go, a brisk business has developed in the sale of bogus service animal certificates and vests.

Tim Livingood runs one of many websites that sell certification paraphernalia. For $65, customers can procure papers, patches and vests to make their dogs look official. They can even buy a prescription letter from a psychiatrist after taking an online quiz.

The laws are broad enough to allow that, Livingood says. While his business, the National Service Animal Registry, sounds official, he says government-sanctioned registration agencies do not exist — federal law does not actually require registration or identification patches. Property managers or airlines cannot mandate that service animals come with patches, and they can't ask owners to produce ID cards.

Joanne Shortell, who has a service dog, works to educate people about their rights to have service animals. And there's a lot of confusion, she says. Animals are helping more people cope with a range of illnesses and disabilities, but the terminology and web of access rights make it almost impossible to sort out the frauds from the legitimate helpers.

"We don't have any clue how many fake service dogs there are because a lot of the real service dogs look like fake service dogs," she says. "A lot of people assume when someone walks in with a toy poodle in their arms with a little tutu on it that it can't be a service dog, but it can."

In California, where pretending your dog is a service animal is punishable by a fine or imprisonment, the state's Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind helps cut through the confusion.

"I had a restaurant owner ask me once if a guide dog would sit on the lap of a customer," says Antonette Sorrick, the agency's executive officer. "A guide dog will never sit on the lap. That's not what they're trained to do."

But Henderson says the pretenders are making it harder for service dogs like Phoebe, the Saint Bernard, to do what she was trained to do: help Lauren Henderson get around. "It makes service dogs look bad," she says. "Everyone thinks I'm a faker now."

Copyright 2013 KCRW-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcrw.com.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maybe this has happened to you. You're in the grocery store, and you see somebody using a service dog, complete with a distinctive little vest. But something seems off. Service dogs are supposed to help people with disabilities, but some people without disabilities act like they have them. Apparently, some people obtain fake service animal certificates and vests so they can take the animals where pets are not allowed, which is creating a problem for those who really do depend on service animals.

Lisa Napoli reports from member station KCRW in Santa Monica.

LISA NAPOLI, BYLINE: Lauren Henderson goes everywhere with her service dog, Phoebe - the grocery store, Disneyland, to the beach. For Henderson, who used to be paralyzed, her 100 pound lumbering St. Bernard is a necessity.

LAUREN HENDERSON: She's basically like a living walker - only better. I can tug on her. I can use her for stability and balance. And also, if I do fall, she braces, stands there really tight and helps pull me back up on to my feet.

NAPOLI: Lately, Henderson's noticed more dogs than ever are wearing vests that label them as service animals. But she can tell they're different from Phoebe.

HENDERSON: They're shaking, and they're like peeing and like barking incessantly, or even sometimes growling at people and, you know, they'll have a service dog vest on. I know how service dogs are trained though, and know the behavior that they're meant to display in public and definitely are not, and that's not a service dog.

NAPOLI: A service dog is highly trained and performs a specific task for its disabled owner. It's different than a therapy dog, which comforts the sick and elderly, or an emotional support animal, which soothes anxiety. These days, there's also the chance a dog wearing a vest isn't any of those things.

TIM LIVINGOOD: Because the laws are broad, some people do get away with that.

NAPOLI: Tim Livingood runs one of many websites that sell certification paraphernalia. For 65 bucks, you can get papers and patches and vests to make your dog look official. You can even buy a prescription letter from a psychiatrist after taking an online quiz.

While his business is called the official sounding National Service Animal Registry, Livingood says no such thing exists.

LIVINGOOD: There's no government sanctioned registration agency because federal law does not require registration, or IDs, or patches, or a property manager or the airlines can not mandate that you have a harness with service animal patches or ID cards. They can't ask you to produce one.

JOANNE SHORTELL: We don't' have any clue how many fake service dogs there are because a lot of the real service dogs look like fake service dogs.

NAPOLI: Joanne Shortell says in her work educating people about their rights to have service animals, there is a lot of confusion. While today more people are coping with a range of illnesses and disabilities thanks to animals, Shortell says the terminology and web of access rights make it almost impossible to sort out the frauds.

SHORTELL: A lot of people assume when someone walks in with a toy poodle in their arms and a tutu on it, it can't be a service dog, but it can. It can be a diabetes dog with a little old lady.

NAPOLI: A dog trained to smell and react to the chemical changes in its owner's blood sugar has different access rights than an untrained emotional support dog someone takes on a plane.

Antonette Sorrick is the executive director of California's State Board of Guide Dogs. Among other things, her agency's job is to help cut through the confusion.

ANTONETTE SORRICK: I had a restaurant owner ask me once if a guide dog would sit on the lap of a customer. And I said a guide dog will never sit on the lap, that's not what they're trained to do.

NAPOLI: All of this is making it harder for service dogs, like Phoebe the St. Bernard, to do what she was trained to do: Help Lauren Henderson get around.

HENDERSON: It just makes service dogs look bad. Everyone thinks I'm a faker now, and she's a faker.

NAPOLI: And while the true fakers are hard to vet, it is against the law: In California, pretending your dog is a service animal when it's not is a misdemeanor.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Napoli in Santa Monica.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.