SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jim Power, a licensed trainer of guide dogs for the blind from San Rafael, Calif., was visiting a crowded Southern California theme park recently when he spied "a 20-something lady with a Chihuahua on a leash." The small pooch wore a vest identifying it as a service dog.
"It didn't particularly look very legitimate," Power told a state Senate committee looking into what the disabled community, dog trainers and businesses call a growing problem: fake service dogs.
Representatives of the California restaurant, retail, hotel, apartment and condominium industries testified that dog owners, who don't want to be separated from their pets, are abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws by falsely identifying their canines as working animals.
Broadly written laws that carry stiff financial penalties make it
difficult for business owners to question an animal's credentials, unless it misbehaves or isn't housebroken, they said.
Fake service dogs, critics charge, can create health and safety problems for the public and sully the reputations of trained animals essential to helping people with disabilities.
"The problem is not necessarily with the folks who legitimately need service animals," said Keri Bailey of the California Grocers Association at a Feb. 24 hearing of the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee. "There's a growing trend of folks who just want to take their pet with them."
As a result, "there's not much" businesses can do besides allow the animal inside, Bailey said. "Otherwise, we face some pretty serious repercussions."