Service dogs guide the visually impaired, open doorways for the physically disabled, and can even assist with medical conditions by warning their owners about seizures or spikes in blood sugar. Specially trained companion canines are prescribed to military veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, children with autism, and those suffering from mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and agoraphobia. As such, these extraordinary dogs must accompany their owners everywhere — to work, to the grocery store, to school, to the coffee shop down the street, and other places.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, a service animal is, in short, “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work and/or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Any dog breed can be certified as a service animal, but some breeds, such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Pit Bull Terriers, are popular choices for assistance work.
An estimated 50,000 people in the U.S. live with disabilities who rely on their service dogs to help get them through the day, and the ADA protects their right to bring their guide dogs, assistance animals, and medical alert canines with them into establishments where regular dogs cannot go.
New York City resident and restaurateur Brett David is not one of these 50,000 people. He is not disabled and he does not suffer from psychological impairments. But for David, it’s just more convenient if shop owners believe his Yorkshire Terrier mix Napoleon is a service dog. Why?
“I was sick of tying up my dog outside,” David tells the New York Post.
That’s why David and others like him in cities across the country choose to play the system by fitting their dogs with fraudulent service dog tags, patches, vests, harnesses, and certificates — and all so they can bring their dogs along to bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, and other locations under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“He’s been to most movie theaters in the city, more nightclubs than most of my friends,” David boasts of his pint-sized “therapy dog.”
With Napoleon by his side donning a small “therapy dog” vest, David can cut ahead in long lines or even get discounts on products and services. He even uses Napoleon to score chicks. “I don’t care who you are, a teacup Yorkie will trump a black [American Express] card when you’re trying to pick up a girl,” he says jokingly to the NYP.
It turns out getting your hands on phony service dog paraphernalia isn’t as difficult as one might think. A quick web search and an eBay bid later, and scammers can easily purchase bogus service dog ID cards, tags, patches, and placards. Anyone with a credit card and an Internet connection is a simple click away from being able to take advantage of a system put in place to protect legitimate service animals and the owners they assist.
“Sometimes, they’ll give me a hassle and say bring the papers next time, but for five bucks, you order [a patch] off eBay, and it works ninety percent of the time,” David explains.
Others hoping to exploit the ADA service animal protections look to certify their regular dogs through legitimate service dog training organizations, but they do so for the wrong reasons and are not educated about the true purpose of a service dog.
“I receive plenty of calls from people who do not have disabilities, but are going out of town and need to take their dogs with them,” Director of Communications for The Lighthouse of Broward, a Florida facility that provides education and support for the blind, tells Cesar’s Way. “They are looking to find out where they can get certification.”
Former President of Guide Dog Users, Inc., Becky Barnes, says her organization has received similar calls from people looking to get their dogs certified.
“The best way to get certification is to go through a proper training program,” Barnes explains, though she discourages the practice. “The law does allow for individuals to train their own dogs to be service dogs, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as the individual needs to be matched with the appropriate dog.”
People who purchase phony service dog identifications for their pet should understand that a tag or hologram assistance animal ID card does not an authentic service dog make.
“I’ve seen dogs with service dog tags misbehaving and acting aggressively in public,” says Bev Klayman, manager of admission services for guide dog training program Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “The general public cannot differentiate between dogs that have been legitimately trained to be service dogs [and those that have not].”
“These illegitimate service dogs are causing scenes and causing a bad representation of service dogs,” Klayman adds.
All it takes is a few bad apples — or counterfeit tags and cards — to potentially ruin it for those with actual service dogs, those for whom the ADA protection was intended. President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, Toni Eames, is blind herself and relies on her Seeing-Eye dog for help. Eames says that fake service dogs can turn a typical outing with her dog into chaos.
“People don’t realize that if the dog misbehaves in any way — if it isn’t clean, barks, or is overly friendly and jumps on people — that it aggravates other dogs and disrupts the way they do service,” Eames explains.