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Are Assistance Dogs Be Used Too Often To Beat The System?
Phony service dogs are becoming a real problem -- which is why the non-profit group, Assistance Dogs International, wants to stop the sale of what they call fake service dog vests and ID cards. The group says it violates the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Consumer reporter Bettie Cross looked into the problem last month and was surprised by how easy it was to get a vest and ID card for her pet. Since we aired her story, we've been contacted by a disabled veteran who has an emotional support animal. It's not the same as a service dog, but canine imposters are impacting his life, as well.
Picture a service dog and a dog named Keeper is probably what comes to mind. He's an eager-to-please lab who's being trained at Texas Hearing and Service Dogs.
Now take a look at this boxer. Puppy Chow is not professionally trained. She's a pet. But she's also an emotional support animal or ESA.
“She soothes me and calms me,” said disabled veteran, Scott Babbitt.
Unlike Keeper, Puppy Chow is not trained to do specific tasks, like retrieve something that might be just out of reach for someone in a wheelchair. Instead Puppy Chow's purpose is to be a comforting presence to Babbitt who served 13 years in the marines.
“I was a helicopter crew chief in a Huey. We'd roll up and you'd never know what you were going to find. It takes a toll on you,” said Babbitt.
His doctor prescribed him an ESA as part of his treatment program. In addition to the prescription he also went online and bought an ID.
“It's easy. Anybody can do it,” said Babbitt.
While the Marine meets all qualifications to have an ESA he sees the potential for abuse.
“So you got the tag though without offering any proof that you're disabled?” asked reporter Bettie Cross. “None at all, I just clicked on a couple of questions and it said I rated an emotional support animal,” said Babbitt.
Photo IDs, certificates, and service dog vests are for sale on the internet. And remember that letter of prescription Babbitt got from his doctor; you can buy one online for $114. With the letter an emotional support animal is able to fly in the cabin of a plane.
“I'm rather indignant,” said Sheri Soltes, the president of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs.
She says the potential for problems is all too obvious. “It's very important that we try to keep the standards up and get the fraudulent things off the market,” said Soltes.
I was able to buy a service dog vest for my pet, Chelsea, without offering any proof I was disabled or that my dog had special training.
“The public can't tell the difference, so if somebody is out there and their dog is eating food off the floor and sniffing the things for sale and barking and doing who knows what, it makes it look bad for all of us,” said Soltes.
And that includes those who need the companionship and unconditional love of an emotional support animal.
“She's my best friend,” said Babbitt.
Emotional support animals are not the same as service dogs and they don't have the same freedoms. Under federal law ESAs can’t go into places designated as no-pets-allowed, like restaurants and businesses. But, they are able to live in no-pet apartments and even travel in the cabins of airplanes if the handler has a note from a doctor.
In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act gives business owners the right to exclude any animal that is out-of-control or is not housebroken.
Federal Laws for service dogs -- http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.pdf
Americans with Disabilities Act for Small Businesses -- http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/smallbusiness/smallbusprimer2010.pdf
Texas Hearing and Service Dogs -- http://www.servicedogs.org/
By Bettie Cross