Service animal scams remain a persistent issue
Availability of “certified” canine supplies fuels controversy
By David Percival 04/26/2012
A few mouse clicks is all it takes to “certify” your dog as a service animal, even if you never had one to begin with. Just ask Ari Friedman.
“It took me under two minutes to register my fake dog to a fictitious, nonexistent person,” said Friedman, a personal injury specialist with Friedman Law Offices in Los Angeles. To demonstrate how easily service dog scams are carried out, Friedman created a phony pooch, registered it, and shortly after that he received ID cards and a service dog certificate. “[It’s] all from a website that ‘sounds’ like a government entity called usservicedogregistry.org.”
U.S. Service Dog Registry is among many organizations selling service animal supplies and certificates to the public, effectively blurring the line between legitimate service animals with their disabled owners and people eager to exploit unsuspecting businesses into allowing their pets to follow them anywhere.
Paul Bowskill, the general manager of a Hawaii-based company called Service Dogs America, points to the invalidity of service animal certificates.
“There is no such thing as certification for a service dog,” Bowskill said. “There is no piece of paper. We provide an information package.”
Service Dogs America sells vests complete with “Do not pet me” patches, customized collar tags and an information booklet to any person who wants to make canine companions service dogs. Although the website states that it is illegal to use a service dog without a disability requiring such an animal, anyone can purchase the supplies necessary to take his or her pet into any establishment. This has caused a problem for restaurant owners.
According to California Health and Safety Code, Section 114259.5, service animals are permitted to accompany disabled people into restaurants so long as they are not present in areas used for food preparation and there is no risk of food or utensil contamination. Dogs in general are not permitted in restaurants because of health risks.
“Dogs do harbor diseases that can be transmitted through food,” said Debbie Borsos, supervising environmental specialist with the Ventura County Environmental Health Department. “But we enforce the California Health and Safety Code that specifies only service animals or animals with uniformed law enforcement [are permitted in restaurants.] Dogs that are highly trained are not normally going to be doing other things that most of our pets would normally do.”
But not every dog that enters a restaurant, especially an impostor service dog, is going to be highly trained.
“I’ve seen an ADA bulletin stating that even in the event someone brings in a service animal, the restaurant can exclude the animal if the health risks are apparent or if the dog is causing a lot of trouble (barking, etc.),” said Friedman.
Some organizations have created standards that make it harder for people to obtain vests for their service animals.
Bridget Winnett of Simi Valley has trained dogs for 17 years with Guide Dogs of America. “[Our guide dog] jackets have a number on them and they are turned in with the dog so people can’t sell them,” said Winnett.
Guide dogs, canines specialized in assisting the visually impaired, are usually labradors or golden retrievers. Winnett said she believes businesses need to take the dog’s breed into account when dealing with a suspected phony guide dog handler.
“These establishments have to be aware of what these guide dogs look like,” said Winnett. “It’s not going to be a pit bull; you can’t take any dog and turn it into a guide dog.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act, an integral force in securing the freedoms of disabled Americans, says that no more than two specific questions can be asked of a person with a service animal.
“The first question is ‘Is this a service animal?’ ” said Bowskill. “And secondly, ‘What task does the dog perform?’ This is critical; the dog must perform a task.”
But canines are not the only legal service animals.
“It has to be a dog or a miniature horse,” said Daniel Conway, legislative and public affairs director for the California Restaurant Association. “There is really not a whole lot [restaurants] can do except asking if this is a service animal and taking a person’s word on it.”
Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and president of the Guide Dog Board of California, said that the Americans with Disabilities Act could use some adjusting.
“The fact that [the Americans with Disabilities Act] additionally made an exception for miniature horses I think only confused the matter more,” said Scott. “If you were to survey business owners in Ventura County and ask them to give you the definition of a service animal, how many businesses do you think would know the federal definition?” Scott said that many businesses know about service dogs, but he is doubtful that all businesses know the full definition.
Miniature horse or dog, Friedman said that the confusion regarding service animals and scams can be remedied by adjustments to the Americans with Disabilities Act laws.
“It needs to be made [simpler],” said Friedman, who believes that disabled people with service animals should be required to carry universally accepted licenses. “This is no different than someone abusing a disability parking placard.”