Channel 2 Investigates fake service dog industry

By Shannan Adler , Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - We’ve all been there: You’re eating at a restaurant or in line to board a plane when you spot it -- a furry creature wearing a service dog vest that looks anything but.

Channel 2 Investigates went undercover to get to the bottom of the booming fake service dog industry to find out what the rules are and just how easy it is to break them.

We needed a willing participant to play the part of the fake service dog. Enter my 14-year-old Dachshund named Pups, who is many things -- a love bug, a connoisseur of yogurt, but one thing he most certainly is not is a service dog. If he sits when you have asked him to, it’s just a coincidence. He was perfect for the role.

Through the course of our investigation, we learned just how easy it is to purchase a credible looking service dog vest online. The barrier to entry for purchase and use was zero.

None of the companies require any official documents, and most require none at all. For less than $150, we were mailed a complete kit, which included a vest, certificate, dog tags and service dog ID card — all bogus. We used Service Dogs of America to buy our kit and it was obvious that these companies are making a mint on this booming niche business.

While it is technically a misdemeanor to present a non-service dog as a service dog in Texas, the rules are rarely enforced, to the dismay of landlords, airlines and small businesses who continually lose out on pet-deposit fees.

A true service dog, unlike Pups, has been trained to assist its owner with tasks that owner could not manage on his or her own. The real service dog featured in our story, Cinnamon, has been paired with Ronda Colby, a retired Air Force veteran, who relies on Cinnamon’s assistance to combat PTSD.

For Colby, the help is a matter of life and death.

“I was on some medication, so it totally knocked me out," Colby said. "I was choking and she literally woke me up.”

Colby’s service dog trainer, Dera Moy, works with Service Dog Express, a company that specifically trains service animals for those who truly need them.

Moy sees fake service dogs everywhere and wants more accountability.

“There’s no regulations. There’s no certification (for) all of the things you see online -- service dog registry, service dog certification -- they are all scams," Moy said. "That is something I wish our government would crack down on.”

Cinnamon was expertly trained. It was evident she was a service dog. She stayed by Colby's side and would block others from coming too close to Colby as she and Moy had trained her to do.

Pups, on the other hand, was a different story. We put the fake service dog vest on him and hit the streets while he zig-zagged at his leisure. We ventured into mattress stores, restaurants, apartment buildings and the airport. Not once were we stopped and asked to leave. That vest saved us from paying a $125 pet-airfare fee and an additional $500 in pet-deposit fees at an apartment complex. The vest more than paid for itself in just a few hours.

The sale of fake service dog vests and certification is a big business. Along with numerous websites of companies you’ve never heard of, there are also big retailers who are profiting from the uptick in demand. Websites including Amazon and Walmart are selling dog vests.

So what does the law say? The Americans with Disabilities Act allows two questions to be asked:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

KPRC Channel 2 News will continue to update this story as we learn of any new proposed regulations that would help curtail the widespread misuse of service dog kits.

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