Four Legged Fakes: Pets getting away with being service dogs

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- After members of the community expressed concerns that people are getting away with passing off their pets as service dogs in public places, FOX59 decided to look into the problem.

Erin Garner is a student at IUPUI. She never leaves home without her backpack, notebook, or Raphael. Raphael is Erin's service dog. He's highly trained to keep her calm and protect her during potentially stressful situations.

“He’s a psychiatric service dog. I have both PTSD and I am on the autism spectrum," Erin said.

Erin clearly needs her dog for both emotional and physical support daily. The vest he wears proves he's legit, but that same vest can be purchased online, by someone without a disability.

FOX59 decided to see just how easy it is to get a vest and pass off a pet as a legitimate service dog. We found a vest on a popular online retailer's website for just $40. It came in the mail a few days later, complete with a service dog label and 50 American's with Disabilities Act Cards, meant to prove to people your dog is legit. We did discover, though, in order to get those cards and the vest, there's no registration or proof required. That means anyone can go online, with a few clicks, and some cash, and pass off their pet as a service dog.

“I think it’s a disgrace that you can purchase a card online that suggests that you’ve turned your animal into a service animal simply by paying a fee and putting a vest on an animal," said David Meihls with ADA Consultants of Indiana.

To prove the point of just how easy it is to get away with it, FOX59 did just that. Our reporter Shannon Houser used her dog, Samoa as an example. Samoa is a playful beagle with barely any training.

Jennifer Cattet of Medical Mutts trains service dogs daily. The process takes years to complete. She met Samoa at a local mall and got a few tips on training.

“She’s acting like a very typical dog. This is a very difficult behavior for a lot of dogs," Cattet said.

Training a service dog not only takes years, it also takes a lot of money. Cattet says people who try to get their dogs on planes for free or into restaurants could be harming their own dogs.  It also creates a dangerous problem for legitimate service dogs.

“Every time somebody takes one of those pet dogs that are not trained like a service dog, that are not providing a service out in public, it looks bad to every other dog," Cattet said.

Erin says she's part of an online group with thousands of service dog owners. She says more and more people are posting horror stories of how their dogs were attacked by fake service dogs. She adds, it's offensive to the people who rely on service dogs for everyday needs when a pet owner chooses to take advantage of a federal law.

According to the ADA,  businesses are only allowed to ask a service dog owner two questions to validate the legitimacy. 1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The ADA states, "staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability."

In Indiana, the practice of passing off your pet as a service dogs is completely legal. This year, lawmakers in Michigan passed a law making it a misdemeanor crime if someone gets caught using a fake service dog.

When FOX59 asked the US Department of Justice about this issue, they responded;

“The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including those who use service animals. The ADA does not address individuals without disabilities, such as anyone who may falsely claim that a pet is a service animal. Because this issue does not address the civil rights of people with disabilities, it is not in our regulating authority under the ADA to issue regulations to penalize false claims that a pet is a service animal. However, we note that state civil or criminal law may already penalize such claims in some circumstances.”