HOUSTON - It takes months of training and a major financial investment for a dog to become a certified service animal. But that's not stopping able-bodied people from claiming their ordinary pets are trained service dogs.
It's the latest trend in pet accessories, and it's based on deception. A growing number of dog owners are dressing their pets up in fake service vests to gain access to public spaces.
Whether out of convenience or companionship, critics say it's cutting into the rights of the disabled.
The vests are easily available online. One could be purchased along with 50 ID cards for $19.95. No proof of service dog training was required to make the purchase.
Kristie Baker knows the practice well. Baker, a polio survivor, has been using service dogs for over 20 years. She said the last five years or so there's been a shift in how she's treated by businesses.
Baker finds herself answering more questions from suspicious managers.
"We've been questioned probably ten times more since people have been able to get 'I'm a working dog' harnesses online," said Baker. "All of a sudden it's like, 'What are you bringing that dog in for? Is it there to help you?'"
Baker worries that the rights of all disabled people are being eroded by uneducated and careless pet owners.
"The pet dogs misbehave, they'll bark, they'll growl at people or they'll pee inside a building. Merchants are becoming a little bit cautious," Baker said.
Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs for the disabled, has drafted a petition asking the Justice Department for action.
The group hopes to have 50,000 signatures by March. At which time they hope to take the issue to local and national legislators.
Web Extra: View the petition
CCI instructor Jen Hanes trains service dogs. She said service dogs spend months at a facility learning how to stay calm and focused in crowded environments.
Hanes said without proper training pets can be nervous, anxious and defensive in crowded situations -- a potentially dangerous combination for both the animal and patrons.
"They haven't had any training out in public," Hanes said. "So they go out, they're exposed to another dog or exposed to different sounds, distractions in the environment and it causes inappropriate behavior. The dog is acting out. It could definitely be a threat to a disabled handler, someone who may not have the same amount of strength or reaction speed than an able bodied handler has."
Hanes said a common excuse owners use is that the pet dog is there for emotional support. A distinction not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service dogs must be able to perform a task.
"If they say, 'Oh well, the dog's presence helps me,' or, 'I like having the dog near me.' You want to make sure that it's actually doing a task," said Hanes.
Hanes said she's seen first hand how the dogs she trains change lives. She's worried that a few bad actors may take away some of her students' new found independence.
"For them to come along with a legitimate service dog and be denied access because of the poor behavior the person before them or the dog before them is really unfortunate," said Hanes. "Ultimately it doesn't effect just you, it affects many other people."
Advocates stop short of asking for a nationwide ID card or other government permit. They say a significant number of people train their own service dogs and added documentation could be an added burden.
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