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ONLY ON KOLD: Four-legged fraud

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

We've probably all seen disabled people out and about with their service dogs, or maybe vets who use dogs to help them with their PTSD. But there's a growing problem. People who don't have a disability, and don't have trained service dogs, pretend their pets are actually service dogs. It's a problem for local businesses, and an insult to people who truly need their service companions.

"I can't imagine somebody wanting to do that just to have their pet with them and not leaving it at home when we have these dogs for a reason."

Shelby Smith's talking about people pretending that their pets are service pets. Shelby and her service dog Gabe have been together for five years. They're companions, friends, and Gabe's a necessity - enabling Shelby to do simple things that you and I take for granted.

She says the main thing he does for her is pick up things that she drops because it's very hard for her to get out of her chair to pick things up... "He's my world. He's my rock. He's my everything. I don't know what life would be like without him."

Shelby, who lives in Tucson, was born with multiple limb deficiency, so she needs a wheelchair to get around. A non-profit group called Canine Companions for Independence trained Gabe and put the two of them together. She says "now my life is so much better. It's so much enhanced. He makes me smile when I'm having a bad day."

Service dogs, with their vests that show they're "working", are allowed to go with their owners places where ordinary pets can't. We went to a training session of Guide Dogs for the Blind in Tucson. It takes a year, maybe a year and a half of intense training before dogs learn all the skills needed.

But as more people use service dogs, more people abuse the situation. They put vests on their pets and pretend they're actually working service dogs.

And it's stunning just how easy it is for anyone to get their hands on service dog gear. All you need is a computer. You type in service dog vests in a search, and it takes a matter of seconds. All kinds of vests and badges are at your fingertips.

"We're in the hospitality business. We don't want to turn people around to send them away. We do try to accommodate them."

Brandon Gandara is the manager of pet-friendly El Charro in downtown Tucson. He says they have customers who come in with service dogs who are well behaved. But there's no question he's seen situations where people obviously simply put a vest on their un-trained pet. He says "people who need service dogs need service dogs. But you're walking around with a fake jacket on - that's not right. It's kind of a slap in the face to people who actually need service dogs."

Shelby says she sees fake, obviously untrained, service dogs when she goes out with Gabe. "They're very hyper. Sniffing things and sniffing people as they walk by.  Gabe is not allowed to do that."

It's a federal offense to use a "fake" service dog - but basically the law is not enforceable. Businesses simply are allowed to ask the person with the dog. Not only can fake dogs make things uncomfortable for other customers, they're also opening up the businesses for potential problems. Gandara admits "If we decide to take that pet in and serve the person and something happens - it's on us. It's a big risk that we take."

The discussion about how to fix this problem is just beginning. Until it's fixed, the danger is the people who use fake dogs will make things more difficult for people like Shelby, who says "this dog's my go to person. My everything. I don't know what I'd do without him." She truly needs her service companion.

For more information on the laws the take animals into businesses, click here. To sign the petition to help stop the production of fake service dog products, click here.

Copyright 2013 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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