Regular pets passing as service dogs

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Updated: 11/04/2011 12:01 pm Published: 11/01/2011 11:11 am

In a FOX 23 investigation, we found out people are pretending their pet dogs are service dogs, so they can take them inside stores and restaurants.

It's creating a whole new problem for people with disabilities.  Toby, a happy yellow lab, helps David Skaggs do just about everything.

David's paralyzed from the chest down. Toby opens and closes doors, helps David get undressed, picks up what he drops and turns lights on and off.

"Oh, he's wonderful," David said.  Wherever David and Toby go, David has to answer the same questions.

"You're constantly having to say "it's a service dog, it's a service dog,'" David said. "I get tired of it. I really do."

If you think it's bad for David, who's in a wheelchair, imagine what it's like for Lenna Hanna-O'Neil. At first glance, you might not know she needs a service dog.

Lenna has trouble balancing. At any moment she could fall, and her service dog, Calvin, is ready to help.

"With Calvin there, it's like okay we got this," Lenna said.

She gets questioned everywhere.  "All the time... it's pretty much a constant issue," Lenna said.

Melissa Sublett, attorney with Oklahoma Disabilites Law Center, says the law is clear. People with disabilities can take service dogs anywhere.

But the law is not so clear about what a service dog is and what a disability is.

"There's always gray areas with all this, and there's a lot of litigation over what's a disability," Melissa said.

And because of that gray area - there's a new problem.

People who don't really have a disability are taking their pets that aren't really service dogs and pretending they are.

"There's a problem, and I see it a lot," David said.

Susan Hartman with Therapetic Service Dogs of Oklahoma places service dogs like Toby.  "It's frustrating, and it is maddening," Susan said.

She says bogus disability dogs cause more suspicion for legitimate handlers.

"It can be demoralizing. Our clients are not dealing with the most accessible world in the first place, and this is another hassle they have to deal with," Susan said. "It happens enough that you have business owners that are put on alert."

Libby Auld, owner of Elote Café, knows the law. But she also has to answer to the Health Department. So only service dogs are allowed in her restaurant.

"You don't want to question it, but at same time people don't want to eat around a dog," Libby said.

FOX23 Reporter Janna Clark has a yorkshire terrier, named Penny. Janna went online to see if she could get Penny a service dog vest and an identification card. Susan says real service dogs aren't required to wear vests, and their handlers aren't required to carry an ID card. But most service dogs wear a vest. And some handlers carry an ID card.

Susan says hundreds of online companies sell service animal gear.

Turns out, Janna didn't have to give any proof of being disabled or that Penny was a qualified service dog. All Janna had to do was pay $57. And in less than a week, Penny's service vest and ID card came in the mail.

Janna decided to take Penny a few places where dogs aren't allowed to see what happens.

A FOX23 producer takes Penny into a local grocery store. And the security guard stops her as she comes in.

He tells the producer that dogs aren't allowed in the store. But then the producer tells the security guard that Penny's a service dog and shows him the vest and ID. That's all she has to say. The security guard says Penny's allowed inside.

Then the FOX23 producer takes Penny, a poser service dog, to Elote Cafe.

Remember, FOX23 talked to the owner, Libby Auld, about this problem just a couple weeks ago.

At the time she said, "I feel like it would be very obvious if someone is faking a service dog."

When she sees Penny in her cafe, Libby's suspicious and confronts our producer. Penny's sitting next to her in the booth.

Libby tells the producer that Penny doesn't look like a service dog and asks what service she provides.

The producer tells Libby that Penny helps her with anxiety.

Libby even tells the producer that she knows some people try to bring in fake service dogs.

After a four-minute conversation, even though Libby doesn't believe Penny's a real service dog, she can't do anything about it.

That's when Janna walks in with a FOX23 photojournalist.

"That's so funny, you set me up," Libby said. "I was like, I can't believe this girl is bamboozling me."

Libby says posers put her in a tough spot.

"Yeah there's nothing you can do about it. It's terrible," Libby said.

Because of the chance that Penny's a real service dog.

"I'm sitting there going, oh my gosh if she does have this dog for anxiety and I'm interrogating her she's going to have an anxiety attack, and it's going to be my fault," Libby said.

Attorney Melissa Sublett says business owners can legally ask only two questions.

"Is this a service animal, and what task does he perform?" Libby said.

There's no law against pretending a dog is a service dog. But there's talk of regulating service dogs and their handlers, like creating a national certification.

But those with real disabilities like Lenna and David say that could make things worse.

"How are you going to regulate it?" Lenna asked.

"How do you prove it?" David pointed out.

They says creating more regulation could make it tougher for those who already battle so much.

"The reason it's set up that way is so that we don't have to be constantly challenged," Lenna said.

"The logistics could be difficult to manage, absolutely," Melssa said.

All David and Lenna can do is beg the pretenders to stop.

"I hope people would think twice and not do it," Lenna said.

"You're making it terribly difficult on those who need a service dog for help," David said.

The law says service dogs are supposed to behave appropriately when they go inside businesses. If they don't, business owners have the right to ask their handlers to take them outside. Service dog trainers tell us real service dogs are well behaved when they're working.

FOX23 called the company that sold Janna Clark the vest and ID card for Penny multiple times and left several messages, but no one called back.

Also, federal law used to say a service animal could be any kind of animal, like a bird or monkey. But just this year, the law narrowed. Now, only dogs and miniature horses can be considered service animals.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of KOKI FOX23 - Tulsa

Disgusted - 2/5/2013 8:28 PM
0 Votes
I have a friend who uses a fake service dog vest to get her dog on airplanes. She never bothers to crate train the dog, so therefore had no way to get her dog from point A to point B. It was as simple as going online and buying a vest. Now the dog is a regular traveller (I mean at least once a month) on flights between major metropolitan cities. More often than not she gets an upgrade to first class, and if there is no one sitting beside her on the plane she lets the dog sit on the seat. This is not a well trained dog by any means and it barks, cries and often "stinks up" the plane. She claims that the dog is a "seizure alert dog" and that no one can question her about it. She claims that under the disability act no one is allowed to ask her about her (fake) disability, and this includes TSA personnel. I am truly disgusted by this and fear that one day she will take the right for people who actually need service dogs on airplanes. It is a blatant misuse of the law and disrespectful to those with actual disabilities.

candicenkiki - 11/11/2012 3:07 PM
0 Votes
I just retired my 9 pound Service Dog after 7 years of working with me. She saved my life more times than I can count! and yes I am disabled... This article makes me upset because it makes it sound like because my SD was small that I'm a faker....soooo not true! I call for a redo with more accurate info on what a SD can do and how they come in all breeds/shapes and sizes!!!!

DFDK9 - 11/6/2011 10:59 PM
0 Votes
@ServiceDogUser - I am sorry, but you are incorrect. The ADA's definition of a Service Dog is a dog that has "been individually trained to do work or perform tasks" in the plural. One single form of work or single task do not qualify the dog as a Service Dog. Look at existing case law - which is where the term "demonstrable" comes from and where the minimum of three tasks come from. If your Service Dog were to ever be challenged in a court of law, not only would you need extensive training records proving your dog's training, especially if the dog is owner/handler trained, but you would also need to be able to demonstrate some of those tasks for the court and prove that your dog has been trained tasks that are actually demonstrable. And that's tasks, plural. Not singular. (Incidentally, I believe ADI also came up with the three-task minimum based on existing US case law.) Regarding individuals with psychiatric disabilities, I was using this as an example. The article above makes it sound like any individual with "anxiety" suddenly qualifies for a Service Dog. This is not the case. Only individuals who are considered to be disabled under the ADA's definition of the word - that being having an impairment that significantly limits them from doing everyday things - are qualified to use a Service Dog. If other medical devices place them in a position where they are no longer significantly limited, they don't necessarily qualify for a Service Dog anymore. Sutton VS. United Airlines is a piece of case law regarding this you may want to look at.

ServiceDogUser - 11/5/2011 12:23 PM
0 Votes
@DFDK9 - You are incorrect. A service dog that only does work, such as alerting, is still a legitimate service dog. The recent ADA changes came along with a statement that specifically said that alerting and working are legitimate things a service dog can do. Just because the dog can't perform on cue doesn't mean it's not a service dog. You're also incorrect in saying that an SD must perform at least three tasks. There is nothing in the ADA that says this. You're probably thinking of Assistance Dogs International's requirements, which are for three or more tasks. But handlers in the US are not required to meet ADI's standards. Additionally, someone with a psychiatric disability can have an SD even if there's medication that can control their symptoms. The ADA clearly states this. Most people would prefer to take less medication and use a service dog, and the law supports them in this.

DFDK9 - 11/4/2011 2:47 PM
0 Votes
"There's no law against pretending a dog is a service dog." This is incorrect. While the ADA does not cover this, the Department of Justice and state statutes certainly do. In the majority of states, pretending your dog is a Service Dog is only a misdemeanor but yes, it certainly IS against the law and you can be both fined and go to jail for it. I think it's sad that the article really missed a chance to explain what makes a Service Dog. First off, the person has to be considered legally (and not just medically) disabled. And second, the dog has to be trained specific tasks (plural - at least three) to help that specific person with their disability. There has been a lot of talk lately about Psychiatric Service Dogs. Many people assume that doctors can "prescribe" such a dog. This is false. A doctor can certainly recommend but not prescribe. Also, in order for someone to qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog, they'd have to have symptoms not controlled by medication and truly need the dog to do normal things (like going to the store or even just getting out of the house). The dog also has to have trained tasks. Providing "comfort" or being "calming" is not a task. The dog's mere presence is not a task. The dog has to actually DO specific things. ON COMMAND. That's why dogs trained JUST to alert, for example, to seizures or low/high blood sugar are NOT technically considered Service Dogs because the alert itself is not a demonstrable task. They'd still have to be trained at least three other things for the handler that *are* demonstrable tasks. I think your article completely missed a chance to educate people about what Service Dogs actually ARE. Instead, you've made it easier for posers to pass their pets off as Service Dogs by telling them there's really nothing businesses can do about it. (Which is also false, as noted above.)

scoutingmom - 11/3/2011 10:01 PM
0 Votes
I'm sorry that there are posers out there! Some people would not be able to be independent, go out into the world, function around a lot of people, and some of us could even die without our Service Animals! My dog alerts me to my blood sugars, so most of the time he seems like he is just out enjoying the day with me. But when something is wrong he is the MOST annoying dog I know! I had to go through several steps to be able to bring my dog to work with me. I had to do all the training, make sure that he did not give me signs for a high or low when nothing was wrong (he never has)! Get a note from my doctor and purchase a backpack and the ID tag. I am so grateful that I can take him everywhere that I go and I feel it is my privilege to share with people that he is a service dog and does have a specific job. I have only really had a problem at Reasor's at 21st & Yale. The security person at the door told me that ONLY seeing-eye dogs could come into the store. I tried to explain to him that he was incorrect. I was in a hurry so I asked for a manager, and they apologized to me and told the young man, that ANY service dog could come into the store! No more problems there! I have problems at other places, but not with the owners, but with the other customers! The owners or managers always stick up for me. I try to make a point of talking with the employees or managers when I first go in so they have no unanswered questions. I hope the poser’s never have to know what it is like to HAVE to have a service dog, because even though I love my dog and am so grateful for him, I do not like the reason that I have to have him! Thank you Champion Heidelberg’s Kodiak v Queridad 'aka' Kodi and thank you to every business and your employees that have welcomed us with open arms! Patty keystonegermanshepherds dot com

servicedoguser - 11/2/2011 10:45 PM
2 Votes
I have a service dog in Tulsa as well, and this is going to make ALL our lives more difficult! We already deal with so many access issues, and the police aren't well-versed on this. Anyone who is in Tulsa, with a service dog, feel free to contact me on We'll find a way to work on public awareness of ALL types of service dogs!

troublewow - 11/2/2011 10:36 PM
2 Votes
People passing off pets as service animals has always been around. But now service animals are now going to get a bad rap from your article. Also there is more types of service animals out there besides the standard seeing eye dog. And some come in small packages! Also we all can't go to kennels or organiziations for their outrages prices and long waiting periods to see if the animal will work for you. In fact I know from experience that a seizure alert dog that detect one seizure and no guarantee it will detect another seizure again. I was quoted $12,000 and at least one year waiting period. So I went to a trainer and he taught me how it was done. Now, I have trained several for myself and others! But with your article has just made my job harder to even used my service animal. When I look for a service dog for seizure they said I had a choice of a lab, sheperd or possibly a great dane. I told them I didn't want to be pulled anywhere with my arthritis. I also didn't want a scoop shovel in and a scoop shovel to clean up after a dog that big. All I wanted was mouth piece to tell to tell me ahead of time when I was going to have a seizure. So now I have my life and self respect back all in a beautiful 2lb. package. So if you want to tell me my dog isn't a sevice dog. I will reply that I work with the diability board to find out what I needed in a seizure alert dog!

Kit Azevedo - 11/2/2011 10:05 PM
2 Votes
This 'expose' really pisses me off. I am disabled. I have a service dog that is specially trained to mitigate my disability. The ADA protects my rights to go anywhere the general public is allowed with my service dog. The ADA does not require ANY ID cards or certification or even that my dog wear a service dog vest or ID. My dog is a smallish dog, but she is perfectly capable of saving my life, and she had done so on many occasions. I am often harassed in stores because my dog is smaller than the average service dog. It is stories like this one that continues to spread miss information about service dogs. How about next time you want to do a story where you break federal and local law, you do a little research about the laws you are planing on breaking. Google Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA business brief and spend about twenty minutes learning something so that you can pass on REAL TRUE FACTS!

SDHandler - 11/2/2011 9:39 PM
2 Votes
How incredibly stupid can you be? First, you broke state and federal law in the process of your investigation. Did you know you can go to jail for that? Do you realize there are state and federal penalties? Second you are giving a "how to" to people who want to fake it! Your investigation is going to make life harder for legitimate service dog handlers. Gee...Thanks. Do you not realize how much harder our lives already are compared to the able bodied? The info, just in the article is legally incorrect, with the "badge" thing. Geniuses....freakin Geniuses!
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