Parking in a handicapped spot is illegal, and so is misrepresenting your pet as a service animal.
But some dog owners do it.
NBC Bay Area did an undercover investigation and found people passing their pets off as service animals at a local farmers market:
“I’d like to say she’s a service dog. We’ve actually done it before,” one owner told NBC Bay Area undercover cameras. “If you say she’s a service dog they can’t kick you out.”
It's not just a problem in public places, either. The Daily Breeze reports that, even in airports, pet owners are trying to get their dogs on planes:
[Advocates] say more travelers are bringing their dogs to airports and passing them off as service dogs when they’re actually just family pets.
In some cases, the travelers doing the faking may truly believe that their dog — though not trained — actually serves a salutary purpose. Perhaps the dog calms a passenger’s traveling anxiety. But other times, the owners barely try to hide the fact that their dog is really just the family pet....
“They believe their loving, wonderful dog deserves to be with them every moment of the day,” said Corey Hudson, chief executive of Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa. “If they are going on vacation, they don’t have to pay for a dog being under their foot. They save several hundred dollars.”
These deceptions create a serious problem for people who actually need service dogs. Misbehaving dogs labeled as service animals can heighten scrutiny on actual service animals by businesses who are loath to allow animals into their establishments but, legally, have to allow service animals.
Pet owners can easily buy patches, IDs and certification through a number of online registries to identify their animal as a a service animal. Just answer a few questions, provide a payment that can range from $64.95 to $167 and—presto!—Fido is a service animal because you said so, without any proof of training required.
These websites and their kits can be used by service animal teams who find it easier to have some form of ID instead of going through the hassle of explaining that their dog is a service animal at every hotel, airport or coffee shop. But they can also be abused by people who simply want to take their pet with them everywhere. There is no official federal registry for service animals, and owners of service animals are not required to carry identification of their service animal.
The Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a part of the California Department of Consumer Affairs voted last fall to pursue a public education campaign about the issue, and a business lobby testified on the topic before the California state legislature just last week. Corey Hudson's Canine Companions for Independence has been pushing for the Department of Justice to regulate the sale of service animal equipment and IDs.
These imposters make life more difficult for people like Alex Wegman every day. Alex is paralyzed, and her highly trained Canine Companions Service Dog, Bright is prepared to accompany Alex wherever she might need help. That includes places like restaurants and grocery stores where family pets are not allowed.
"When people slap a vest on an untrained dog, it makes the lives of those of us who rely on our dogs more difficult," states Alex.
But not everyone in the disabled community agrees that a public push to change the law is the way to deal with the issue. NBC reports:
"While we deplore those who might be so unethical as to impersonate a disabled person by dressing their dog up as a service animal, we equally deplore the frenzy of alarm being stirred up about the risk of such abuse," said Joan Froling, chairwoman of the IAADP.