Lauren Henderson, an actor who lives in Malibu, takes her service dog everywhere she goes, from supermarkets and restaurants to movie theaters and the beach. As someone who sustained a major workplace injury in her twenties, Henderson was paralyzed for several years, and still copes with disabilities that require daily assistance from her 100-pound Saint Bernard, Phoebe. Henderson now uses her dog for stability and balance. Henderson periodically falls, and Phoebe is trained to pull her back onto her feet.
“She’s basically a living walker,” Henderson says while holding onto the dog’s back.
But lately, workers with disabilities like Henderson have noticed an increasing number of imposter dogs wearing illicit service animal vests. They exhibit behaviors inappropriate for service dogs, such as incessant barking or growling at people, shaking in public, or peeing on the floor.
As Henderson explains, “that’s not a service dog … I know how service dogs are trained, and I know the behavior they’re meant to display and not display in public.”
A service dog is expertly-trained to perform specialized tasks for workers with disabilities. They are not the same as therapy dogs, which soothe anxiety for the mentally ill or simply provide companionship for the sick and elderly.
Yet as labor law attorneys point out, many dogs wearing vests these days might not perform any of those services. Some dog owners simply want to take their pets everywhere they go, and a booming business has emerged to provide bogus service-animal certificates and vests.
Tim Livingood operates one of several new websites selling certification and service-dog paraphernalia. For only $65, pet-owners can get glossy papers, official-looking patches and service vests to make their dogs look like bona fide work animals. They can even complete an online quiz to get prescription letters from psychiatrists.
Livingood sees no problem with this, and points out that labor and employment laws are broad enough to permit these practices. His business, the National Service Animal Registry, has an official-sounding name, but he points out that government-licensed registration agencies don’t even exist; in fact, federal law does not mandate any official registration or identification patches. Moreover, business owners and airlines are prohibited from requiring service animals to display badges, and cannot demand that owners show ID cards for those dogs.
Joanne Shortell trains service dogs and works to educate people with disabilities about their rights to be accompanied by those animals. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding, she says. Animals are assisting a growing number of people with illnesses and disabilities, but the terminology and inconsistent laws make it extremely difficult to differentiate the phonies from the legitimate helpers.
“We have no clue as to how many fake service dogs there are, simply because a lot of the real service dogs look like fake service dogs,” she says. “A lot of people assume when someone walks in with a toy poodle in their arms with a little tutu on it that it can’t be a service dog, but it can.”
In some states, pretending that a mere “pet” is a legitimate service animal is punishable by a hefty fine, and L and I lawyers are working with the Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind to eliminate much of the confusion.
But Henderson says the phonies are making it increasingly difficult for trained service dogs like Phoebe to do what they are trained to do: help workers with disabilities get around. “It makes service dogs look bad,” she says. “Everyone thinks I’m a faker now.”