Impostor service animals posing growing problem



It’s an easy law to break. Strap a vest that says “service animal” to a pet and anyone can go in stores and restaurants where dogs are banned, creating growing problems for the disabled community and business owners and leading to calls for ways to identify the real deal.

Those with disabilities are worried about privacy and the safety of their service dogs, while business owners are concerned about health violations and damage from impostors.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to use a fake service animal. But privacy protections built into the law make it nearly impossible to prosecute offenders. It’s even more difficult because no papers are required for real service dogs. People can go online to buy vests, backpacks or ID cards with a “service animal” insignia.

Efforts to make the law more prosecutable have begun, but few agree on what will work best. Ideas range from ditching privacy to doing nothing.

There needs to be a standard, said Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants in Atlanta. “The sticky part is who will do the testing and what will be the criteria for allowing dogs to be considered assistance dogs.”

An ID card might be the simplest answer, she said, adding that she doesn’t think the loss of privacy will be the big issue that some think it will be.

There is a big difference in the behavior of real service dogs and impostors inside businesses, experts said. A true service dog becomes nearly invisible. Pets might bark, urinate, sniff, scratch and eat off the floor.

Business owners also face problems. In August, Russell Ireland banned a dog from his Oxford, Mass., diner after its owner put a plate of food on the floor for the dog.

James Glasser claimed it was a legitimate service animal and took part in a boycott of the diner. There was talk of a lawsuit. Ireland apologized. The dog’s actual status is unclear.

Marv Tuttle, a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said he believes he spots phony service dogs two or three times a week.

“They can write new laws, but there is no way to enforce them. We don’t have enough police to stop murders, much less stop people from hauling around pseudo service dogs,” he said.