They’re the ire of legitimate service dog owners and they’re also guilty of fraud.
They’re pet owners who pass their animals off as service dogs by using phony credentials which in turn allows their pets to live in restricted housing, accompany them inside restaurants and hotels or fly for free in airplane cabins rather than in cargo holds
“I don’t want to say it’s a scam, but it is a scam,” said Nick Kutsukos, 72, who runs Elite K9 Academy in Jupiter, Fla., and has trained service dogs for 40 years.
People who fake a disability and/or pretend their pet is a service animal risk at least a fine or, in extreme cases, federal fraud charges.
And getting certification is as easy as filling out a form online, sending in your money and perhaps a photograph of your dog. For anywhere from $20 to $300, an owner gets a specially marked dog vest or collar, dog identification tags or ID cards, a certificate, training DVDs, information CDs and other official-looking items.
But none of it is actually required by law.
“There is no certification required, so there’s no such thing as a legitimate (document),” said Toni Eames, president of the Michigan-based International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, who is also blind and has her own guide dog.
Given the time and money invested in training service dogs, disabled users and trainers are angered by those who buy or sell worthless service-dog items online for impostor pets. These fake certifications can make it difficult for people with legitimate service dogs to do certain things. A restaurant manager, for example, might think twice about allowing a legitimate service dog inside because of a bad experience with a fake service dog that barked or misbehaved.
The best way to tell if a service dog is legitimate is to observe its behavior, authorities say. Service dogs won’t appear restless or jump or bark. They will obey the disabled owner’s commands, perform tasks and lie down passively where instructed.
The U.S. Department of Justice last month amended guidelines to narrow the definition of service animals to dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks related to the owner’s proven disability.
Jose Lopez of The Lighthouse of Broward, Florida, who has his own guide dog and who is also a consultant for guide-dog training schools, sums up this unfortunate situation this way: “If you portray yourself as disabled, or your pet as a service animal, the minute you go out in public you’re committing a crime. It’s felony fraud.”