Service animal scams remain a persistent issue

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”

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.” 


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While I really appreciate exposing the fraud and faker sites, I take great umbrage with Bridget Winnett's comment regarding the breed of service dog. Sure, guide dogs are typically labs or Goldens.....but, newsflash, guide dogs are NOT the only type of service dog.

Legally, ANY breed of dog can be a service dog. Yes, even pit bulls. I know several pit bulls that are legitimate service dogs. I know an Australian shepherd that is a guide dog. I know service dogs that are dachshunds, Chinese cresteds, rottweilers, the rare Beauceron, pomeranians, poodles, and labradoodles. They are ALL service dogs, and the ADA states that ANY dog with the proper training can be a service dog.

Those of us with breeds other than labs and goldens already face a tougher time in public, having to hear 'Well, that doesn't look like a service dog." Now to have someone affiliated with such a reputable organization make such a careless, non-factual, and not legal statement is very distressing.

Our service dog is an Australian shepherd. He has undergone obedience training, public access training, and plenty of task training as a medical alert dog for my 5 year old daughter. How dare someone suggest that he and my family be discriminated against simply because of his breed.

posted by Cheriepie on 4/26/12 @ 09:36 p.m.

I agree 100% with Cheriepie. As a service dog owner (border collie mix), educator and advocate who has moved back to Simi Valley; I am going to work on making sure the businesses of Simi Valley (and as many surrounding areas that I can do with the restrictions of my disabilities) know the laws about service animals at both state and federal levels.

Ari Friedman-by giving the name of the website you used with a fictitious dog, you have told potential fakers exactly where to go to get worthless paperwork to pass off their pet as a service dog. Thanks for making it harder for real service dog teams.

posted by HumSD on 4/27/12 @ 08:54 a.m.

This article made a few valid concerns... as a SD user, we see this every day. We have to put up with faker dog teams... making it dangerous for us and our dogs. Several months (averaging 2+ years) go into training our dogs to help us with our disabilities... to bond, public access training, teach obedience, task training (many of us needing more than ONE task).

In trying to argue the case about fakers... articles like this one, just gave a few more new wanna be fakers a list of what they can do, where they can find what they can do to become a faker. You've just added to the faker population making it harder for real SD teams.

Your remedy, suggesting placard type tags... just makes it harder on the real SD teams. Due to fakers, we already have to jump through hoops when we try to enter public areas. Parking placards are easy enough to get... just ask for a doctors note... OR borrow Aunt LahLahs placard when you want to go out. (living near several theme parks, I see many who use someone elses placard to park their car near the entrance)

ADA (disability), FHA (housing), ACAA (transportation), there is even a law covering SDs going into federal buildings... they have all gone over and over all of the same thoughts you have stated here. Even SD teams/groups have spoke about what can be done (or not done) to stop the fakers.

If you are a faker... you can kicked out of public areas (permanently banned), be arrested, fined and even lose your social security benefits.

Service Dogs come in all shapes and sizes depending on what our needs are... you can NOT tell a service dog by what breed it is. FACT to think about... we also have state laws... some states still allow "animals" not just dogs and miniature horses.

Question is... what can YOU do to help the real SD teams and help to get rid of the fakers? Do articles like this... really help?

posted by HollyBear on 4/27/12 @ 09:09 a.m.

PS we are just as upset, angry over faker dogs as you are!

posted by HollyBear on 4/27/12 @ 09:12 a.m.

I have 2 spinal stress injuries, I'm aging and I don't move as quickly as I used to just to be safe, I also don't run unless I have to and even then not very far anymore. I also avoid heavy lifting. I have a large airedale who is a great companion and guard dog. What he does for me is keep me safe wherever I may find myself and also would alert help should I find myself incapable of seeking help myself. Rather than try to milk the system for a measly disability pittance I have resolved to regain my health and try to reenter the work force to the best of my ability. However, what I find is the job market is more difficult than ever and I'm relegated to doing manual labor because I'm no longer seen as a competitive candidate competing with the next generation in a challenging economy for everyone. During my recovery of 6 months from the severely herniated lumbar disc, my retirement plans were wiped out along with my credit. I am trying to recover financially but the opportunities are slim. The restrictions on dogs in housing, jobs, public access, etc make it challenging to keep my dog of 3yrs now but I maintain the struggle because we take care of one another. If I can find the money amidst my financial struggles, I am considering certification for my dog who protects me from those who would take advantage of a frail aging single lady when in another time I would not have to worry about such things as people were more civil. I was shocked to see such an article about "service dog scams" which led me to this article afraid someone would take my money and not provide this service as promised, but after reading it and also the comments it seems all of you should be more concerned with people who fake disabilities to gain special privileges in the first place rather than people who feel their animals are helping them survive in the concrete jungle.

posted by AnimalRightsActivist on 2/20/13 @ 07:30 p.m.

Furthermore, any service animal, birds, cats, dogs, and snakes can all be extremely helpful to the disabled when trained and its really only the disabled individual who can determine if the pet is responsive to their needs. My dog for example wards away people who might harm me and is very friendly to those who are a threat even if they are arguing with someone else and might be disturbing the peace in my vicinity. Any service animal who misbehaves should be cited like any criminal person who for whatever reason disobeys the laws protecting people or becomes disorderly. I also believe animals accused of misconduct should be given fair trial of their reactions before conclusions are made as to the animals behavior. Animals in most cases are much more loyal and predictable than people. Those that are trained and close companions are cleaner, healthier and more law abiding than the majority of people because their owners depend on them for survival. I am more concerned with the diseases transmitted by people and swarms of grubby children than a companion animal in public places. Mind you I'm not a people hater, but I am realistic about the dangers in public places and they are not from exposure to animals.

posted by AnimalRightsActivist on 2/20/13 @ 07:31 p.m.

that should be are NOT a threat obviously sorry no way to edit or delete the post above

posted by AnimalRightsActivist on 2/20/13 @ 07:35 p.m.

As long as people can purchase phony ID cards, vests, etc., that proclaim their dog to be a Service Dog, we're going to have faker Service Dog teams. We strongly believe that any certification process enacted should include requiring a letter of medical necessity from a licensed physician, board certified to practice in their specific field. And... who's going to do the certification. The sad, even more so pathetic reality, is that Service Dogs schools have no certification standard. Joe Public can hang a shingle and operate a service dog school, and most offer "National" certification with their name, logo, etc., despite the fact there is no certification standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

posted by on 3/21/13 @ 01:55 p.m.

I completely agree with Cheriepie. It's not only about seeing eye dogs, labs and goldens. I have been diagnosed with Asperger's and use my trained Pomeranian to assist with sensory perception problems. I also hate to see what I believe are pet owners passing their beloved pooches off as service animals simply to gain access to facilities.

However as much as I know that these vests, patches and certifications sold on the internet are fake and unnecessary, I've been tempted to buy them myself just to avoid the stares and embarrassment when I ultimately get questioned about bringing a cute, fuzzy pooch with me everywhere.

The ADA standards are actually pretty vague and anyone willing to train their own dog to perform virtually any service and without any documentation could legitimately claim it's a service dog - and that's their legal right. However where is that line? What's truly fraud and what's real and how exactly do you prove it?

posted by ccrider77 on 8/14/13 @ 10:39 p.m.

@ - I disagree regarding a letter of medical necessity. You know as well as I do that people who could truly benefit from a service dog may not be able to procure such a document for a variety of reasons, including an incomplete diagnosis, partial disability, health insurance rules or even lack of money for medical care. On the other hand, there are also a lot of professionals who may be willing to write a letter of necessity just to pacify the patient and move them along.

The lack of a concrete standard or rules works to the advantage of those who are truly disabled, and I would rather err on their side than enforce a strict standard that becomes more exclusive than inclusive.

posted by ccrider77 on 8/14/13 @ 11:00 p.m.

I'm a young woman with epilepsy, thyroid mass, kidney and liver disease, and a pituitary tumor that causes adrenal insufficiency. My conditions cannot be seen by passerbys. How do you know people are using someone else's placard? Because they didn't "look" disabled? Wow! My dog is a Great Pyrenees. She whines and tries to make me sit before a seizure occurs. I'm told only 15% can actually alert prior to seizures. She sits with me while I'm postictal, as well. These things did not require training. She just started doing them. She still provides a very valuable service to me. I went into acute adrenal crisis last year and her behavior let my husband know something was way worse than my postictal states. We are trying to train her to behave in public so I can have her with me the next time I have a complex partial in public. While my Keppra helps, it doesn't prevent all seizures. Her breed should not be an issue. Most dogs, of any breed, cannot do what she does as my alert dog. She's just as valuable as any lab or retriever. My neurologist says she's a valuable part of keeping me safe. That alone should be enough without getting crap about her breed.

posted by Jcousin on 10/15/13 @ 05:16 p.m.

After reading this article and seeing the unbelievably ignorant comment that Bridget Winnett of Simi Valley had the audacity to write, I am reminded of how many people there are out there who have absolutely no clue what they are talking about. To say that the owners of establishments should discriminate against their very own customers because that persons service dog is not a specific breed is just ludicrous. If Bridget can believe that Pit-bulls are not suitable for service work, then I have a bridge that i want to sell her. I suggest to you Bridget that you put in at least a half assed attempt to educate your self on a topic before you go and make unfounded comments about a topic that you have no business to have conjectured.If you had taken the time to research the topic even briefly you would not have sounded so ignorant , and prejudice. Had you done 3 minutes of research you would have been educated on the facts that Pit-Bulls are commonly used as service dogs for the disabled. Further more Pit-Bulls are used as police dogs, military dogs , search and rescue, and many other duties. Pit-Bulls also test higher ( better ) than golden retrievers in temperament testing. As far as the topic of people faking legitimate reasons for having a service dog, how exactly can you tell who is disabled and what their disability is. That question was rhetorical. The answer is, you can’t. My only suggestion to you Bridget is do a little research before you talk about something you don’t have a clue about, and try worrying about yourself and not everyone else.

posted by cpt.clark11772 on 7/28/14 @ 01:16 a.m.
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