Stands for You

Tightening leash on service animal fraud in the Coachella Valley

Tightening leash on service dogl...

We see it all the time -- dogs and other pets being brought into grocery stores. But could they all be service animals?

"They are sitting in the cart or if they're not sitting in the cart, they're in their arms and they are going up to the food and grabbing food. I just don't like that," Lana Ghilarducci said.

"I think it's very unsanitary, especially in the produce section. It's not fun to find dog hair in your lettuce or your broccoli," Mariah Barnes said.

Signs prohibiting pets  are clearly posted at the front of grocery store chains, but some people bring in their pets anyway. For example, we found one customer coming out of Walmart with her two dogs in a stroller. The owner told us both dogs are her pets and emotional support dogs. We spoke with Guide Dogs of the Desert, an organization that trains service dogs to guide the blind about what exactly is considered a service animal.

"Service dogs are specifically trained to provide a task for a specific person. Therapy and comfort dogs are trained to be approached and to provide some comfort," Sarah Clapp, of Guide Dogs of the Desert, said.

Clapp said emotional support dogs don't count as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, pets are not allowed in any place that has fresh food. But why do we see so many pets in grocery stores to this day? Clapp said it's because grocery stores have their hands tied when it comes to questioning.

"There are two questions a business owner can ask. The first question is, 'Is that a service dog?' and if the answer is 'Yes, this is a service dog,' then they can ask the follow-up question, 'What has the dog been trained to do for you?'" Clapp said.

Clapp said the questions are limited to protect those with disabilities from being forced to explain their handicap. We reached out to Walmart and Albertsons, where we've seen pets that do not have any service dog identification in grocery carts and in stores. Both chains responded with statements. Walmart said, "Service animals play a vital role in helping those with challenges live happy, independent lives. We're committed to providing a safe shopping experience for those shoppers and associates relying on assistance from service animals. To help provide guidance, we base our store policies on the rules provided by the ADA."

The statement from Albertsons said, "We comply with federal and state law with respect to service animals in our stores."

Riverside County's Department of Environmental Health states that identification is not required to prove if a dog is a service animal. It also states, however, that even service animals aren't allowed to be in shopping carts. Clapp said store employees maybe turning a blind eye because they may not be clear about the guidelines.

One U.S. Marine Corps veteran said he sees it happen all the time.

"To me, it's like when someone who is perfectly physically capable of walking around the grocery store gets into one of those motorized carts and rides around in it anyway, even though they don't have to. It's the same concept to me. You're abusing something that was set up for someone else who needs it. If you don't need it, then don't use it," John Harsh said.

A woman said she thinks there need to be tighter guidelines to prevent people from taking advantage of the rule.

"I think the rules for having service dogs should be more strict. I'm not exactly sure what the rules are now but I think that service dogs should be more visible as to their need," Barnes said.

According to California Penal Code 365.7 (a), anyone who gets caught passing off a pet as a service animal could be charged with a misdemeanor, pay a $1,000 fine and spend up to six months in jail. 


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