By JO CIAVAGLIA
Bucks County Courier Times
LEVITTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Call it the case of doggie deception.
A Bucks County, Pa., district judge says he fell for a dog owner’s story that her wiener dog had a right to be in the courtroom with her for medical reasons. Now Judge Daniel Baranoski is warning his county colleagues to be on the lookout for similar phony service dog claims.
On Tuesday, the woman appeared before Baranoski in his Penndel courtroom for a hearing on a traffic ticket. As she waited for her case to be called, she sat in the gallery with a dachshund on her lap.
When Baranoski questioned the dog’s presence, the woman answered that he was a service dog.
What service does the dog provide? Baranoski asked.
“Psychological,” the woman said, then she handed the judge a business-card size paper stating the dog was “properly registered” with the “United States Service Dog Registry.”
Baranoski, who admits he didn’t know much about service dogs, let the woman and dog stay, but heard her case next to get the dog out of the courtroom.
Later, the judge and his staff learned that the documentation the woman provided is not required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the organization that issued it is considered questionable, according to service dog handlers and organizations.
The incident shines a light on a growing national problem involving healthy, able-bodied dog owners who circumvent the Americans with Disabilities law to get the all-access public pass reserved for service and assistance dogs, advocates for the disabled and service dog experts say. Such deception is making life harder for people with disabilities who rely on service dogs and face additional scrutiny and skepticism from business owners.
Complicating matters is the same federal law that allows service dogs to accompany people with disabilities also lets virtually anyone claim to qualify. Falsely claiming a service dog isn’t illegal, either. The law also doesn’t require that service dogs be registered, certified or undergo specific training.
As a result of such loopholes, online businesses offering to identify or register “service dogs” – sight-unseen, often for a fee – have flourished, said Corey Hudson, president of Assistance Dogs International North America, which represents 95 accredited service dog training groups in the United States.
With a service dog designation, dog owners can bring their pet into restaurants, courtrooms, hotels and restricted housing. They pets also can fly for free in airplane cabins rather than cargo holds, and ride on public transportation.
“We firmly believe that the majority of people that purchase this assistance dog paraphernalia are, in fact, violating the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Hudson wrote in a letter to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office about the problem.
The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching the United States Service Dog Registry for comment Wednesday. But according to its website, the organization provides “free and voluntary online self-registration” of service dogs. It also sells service dog identification products, including a $50 documentation package.
The group describes itself online as “an independent, non-governmental, privacy-conscious and secure service … for disabled individuals who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act to use a service or assistance dog.”
The website also states that registrants are required to “pass through its ‘Education Gateway,’ ” which requires reading and accepting six registration terms, including “minimum training standards for a service or assistance animal” and “the definition of a service or assistance animal.”
Under Americans with Disability Act regulations, a service dog is individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with physical, sensory, psychiatric or other mental disability. The tasks the dog performs must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Since 2011, the law has specifically disqualified dogs whose only function is to provide emotional support or comfort.
While businesses are allowed to ask people with service dogs if the dog is required for a disability and what tasks the dog is trained to do to mitigate the disability, they cannot ask that a person to disclose a disability, said Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partner.
A clever person who knows the law and its limitations can easily get around the questions, especially since many people are reluctant to question someone with a service dog, Eames said.
“Around the time of the Westminster Dog Show, suddenly you see many people who started to fly with so-called service dogs,” Eames added. “The airlines couldn’t do much about it, as long as a dog is really well-behaved.”
Behavior is the biggest giveaway that a service dog is legitimate, Hudson said. Properly trained service dogs won’t appear restless or jump or bark. They obey the owner’s commands, perform tasks and lie down passively when instructed. Businesses can exclude service dogs that are not behaving properly or if the presence constitutes a fundamental alteration of the business or poses a direct threat.
Service dog training is a long process, said Hudson, also chief executive officer of Canine Companions for Independence, the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs.
Certified service dogs in programs like his are trained for two years, generally starting when they are puppies. The graduation rate is low because standards are so high. Consider that last year Canine Companions for Independence graduate 255 service dogs, Hudson said.
The wait for an assistance dog is generally six to 18 months, which is why some people turn to private training or home training, said Eames, who is visually impaired and uses an assistance dog. Those individuals also sometimes buy generic service dog vests available online, she said.
“I don’t know how we strain out the phonies,” she added. “People have come up to me and said, ‘I’d like to take my dog into a restaurant or fly with my dog, how do I get one of those (guide dog) harnesses?’ I usually answer them in a snarky way like, ‘Try going blind.'”
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.phillyburbs.com