|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.