Doggie deception: Vague laws have some defrauding the system


You see service dogs everywhere you go - in stores, restaurants and airports. Federal laws allow them entry to help those with physical and emotional disabilities, but some of those dogs could be imposters. The newest ploy? Counterfeit emotional therapy dogs.

Therapy dog trainer Patricia King puts Teddy through the paces. "Circle, that was a good one, that was very good," she cooed.

Teddy is in training to become a therapy dog for a woman with an anxiety disorder.

"She has issues with space and does not want to be crowded, so say if she were in an elevator and she didn't want people up against her, then he will be asked to circle and being this size, which is why she picked the dog, people will probably give her her space," explains King.

He's also working on a reassuring lean.

"Right, snuggle, yes, good snuggle, good boy," declares King.

It can take up to two years and $50,000 to properly train a skilled therapy dog. But a growing number of people are trying to trick the system, to take advantage of laws that allow emotional therapy dogs to fly for free or stay in apartments that ban pets.

"We get calls, several a month, from persons who have signed leases that they didn't read properly and they want their pet animals to remain in the lease that prohibits pets entirely," said Mark Spivak President and Head Trainer at Comprehensive Pet Therapy, INC.

"My first question to them is well what is your disability and they usually reply, 'oh I'm not disabled.' Then I can't (help them), that would be unethical," explains Spivak.

Where do they turn for this doggie deception? Online.

"You can get a vest over the Internet, put it on a dog and the dog can go in anywhere," explains Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, of the Department of Behavioral Health in Washington, DC.

Website after website offers not only vests but patches. We bought one and put it to the test. Under the law, emotional support animals are not able to enter no-pet locations. Only service dogs can do that. But in his vest and patch, our dog, Dancer, walks by employees, and other pets who are turned away, no questions asked. Store after store welcomes Dancer, even an ice cream shop. But if you want your pet to fly for free or live in your apartment, you need more than a patch. It takes a letter from a mental health professional. No problem. Online, we found lots of experts advertising they'll certify your need for a pooch by your side.

"So, you're saying once I have the letter then I could present it to somebody for a rental car, a hotel, possibly a cruise?" we questioned of our online licensed social worker.

For a $140 fee, a licensed social worker in California asked me seven questions over the phone.

"Over the last 14 days did I feel worried, anxious or on edge?" she asks me.

Twenty minutes later, a diagnosis: anxiety disorder and a signed letter stating my need for an emotional support animal.

"That is a terrible idea. First of all, most psychiatrists don't know enough about the uses of dogs to be able to prescribe a dog. It's very few who are familiar with this area," said Ritchie.

"There are no requirements regarding testing of the dogs, there are no requirements regarding the temperament of the dogs, no requirements regarding how well that dog performs that behavior," explained Spivak.

It's a growing problem in an expanding industry. Experts say the laws need to catch up before someone gets hurt, or worse.

"If that dog goes and bites somebody, or the dog is highly disruptive, it can damage long term the access that legitimate service dogs receive," said Spivak.

Why is it so easy to defraud the system? Because there's three sets of federal rules that apply, The American Disability Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act. On top of that, each state can set its own laws, leaving room for confusion and, therefore, loopholes.

Here's a link to the only two questions a business owner can ask someone who comes in with a dog wearing a vest or declared a service animal.

Copyright 2014 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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