THOUSAND PALMS - There is a new band of criminals in the Coachella Valley and they're proving difficult to sniff out. You've seen them at restaurants, the mall and airport. You may even be an accomplice to one...the fake service dog.
A growing trend of people are breaking the law by dressing their personal pet up and passing them off as a service dog; taking the untrained pup into businesses otherwise not frequented by the four legged kind.
It's easy to do online. We ordered a vest, certificate and ID card for $142. There are less expensive sites but they don't include the same items. With minimal questions asked and a credit card we received our kit within five business days. Proof of our dog's training and proof of our disability were never needed.
The American's with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as one "trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability". Businesses must permit service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where the public is allowed to go.
The dog we chose to use for our investigation is Beamer. He has never had any kind of training, doesn't know the simple command "sit", and isn't even the name of the dog on our certificate or ID.
We dressed him up and walked him through the aisles of a couple of grocery stores. Our handler (person with presumed disability) paraded him by employees and shoppers, never once being stopped.
A couple shoppers bent down to pet Beamer, others told our fake handler how adorable he was. One grocery store opened a new check out line just for our fake handler & service dog while other shoppers waited.
Demonstrating how easy it is to switch out the costume in a household with multiple dogs, we then dressed a different dog in the exact same vest and visited two restaurants. Both restaurants seated us inside with other diners, no questions asked.
Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises. It was a little unsettling because our second dog, "Tubby" was restless, nervously shedding and whining at one restaurant. Our fake handler fed the dog food from his plate to calm her.
Had either of our dogs been true service dogs then both handlers and dogs would have behaved differently.
Sandy Fike-Boisvert, a doctoral student at Walden University working on her dissertation for her Phd in clinical psychology, is a clinician-trainer who prepares service dogs to assist veterans with disabilities. She tells Local 2 it's not a simple process to train a dog for a life of service.
According to Fike-Boisvert, "A dog needs to do basic behavioral training--sit, come, stay, and know their names. Service dogs have to be able to perform specific tasks for you, something to help you overcome any disabilities or deficits you may have and not be able to do on your own." In addition, " A trainer needs to take the service dog with the handler and work them together so the handler can identify what the dog is trying to tell them."
Fike-Boisvert, is currently training a dog that will be able to alert its handler when it is time to take his medication. She herself knows personally how dangerous fake service dogs can be. She was mauled by a supposed service dog. After two weeks in the hospital she required a service dog of her own and the agency that had presumably trained the dog that mauled her had closed it doors and disappeared.
It turns out the law makes it difficult for businesses to doubt a service dog's validity.
Staff can only ask two questions:
1. Is the service dog required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to do?
Any other questions are a violation of the ADA and could land a business owner in deep trouble.
A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless the dog is out of control and the handler can't control it, or if the dog is not housebroken.
Businesses face huge fines if they fail to accommodate a legitimate service dog. It costs $55,000 dollars for a first offense and $100,000 dollars for each additional offense. Plus, California adds civil fines.
Falsely accusing a valid service dog can result in lawsuits as well. This makes a business fearful to question a service dog's credibility.
Privacy issues are not the only problem with ADA rules and regulations. There is also NO governing body to legitimize service dogs or their trainers. Meaning there are no set standards for the training of dogs or the person training them. There are also no licenses or certifications.
The only exception to this are the Guide Dogs for the Blind. They are classified differently from service dogs and fall under the Department of Consumer Affairs. Training of guide dogs is extensive and instructors are are licensed through the state.
The recent increase of people using fake service dogs is not only a hand-tying dilemma for businesses, but it's also a big concern for people who live with real disabilities.
Service dogs are not pets, they are the eyes, ears, arms or legs to a person in need. They lead, guide and protect. There have been reports of real service dogs being attacked by fake untrained service dogs and handlers being abused by the public because their disability is invisible.
When an inquiry was made as to why there is no regulating governing body and why no standards exist for service dogs and their trainers, we received this email response from the U.S. Department of Justice:
"The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including those who use service animals. The ADA does not address individuals without disabilities, such as anyone who many falsely claim that a pet is a service animal. Because this issue does not address the civil rights of people with disabilities it is not in our regulating authority under the ADA to issue regulations to penalize false claims that a pet is a service animal. However we note that the state, civil or criminal law may already penalize such claims"
A fake service dog is more apt to behave inappropriately, destroy property or injure another customer.
Fike-Boisvert explains why fake service dogs are dangerous, "They're dangerous first of all because you don't know how they were trained. a lot of them are not marked appropriately with a vest to let the public know, also the public is not normally educated on the rules of service dogs: No touching, no talking, no direct contact."
She also tells us petting and playing with a service dog is a big No-No. Service dogs are not pets they are working dogs and any distractions keep them from doing their job.
The ADA's regulations that a business owner may only ask a couple vague questions about a service dog's authenticity and because of the lack of any governing agency to regulate service dog's and trainers, a huge loophole has been created.
Some dog owners who don't have a disability are faking it so they can take their pets everywhere they go.
In California it is a misdemeanor to fake a service dog, punishable by six months in county jail and or up to a 1,000 dollar fine.