Pet owners get phony 'service dog' status for perks

Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability, relies on a trained service dog every day, but others often falsely claim their pets are service dogs to circumvent pet restrictions.

Some pet owners are claiming phony service dog status for their animals to get them into hotels and other places that are typically off-limits to dogs.

"No dogs allowed" is no problem for some dog owners. These disobedient owners tag their canines as service dogs to get them into restaurants, movie theaters and other places typically off-limits to animals.

A recent article in the New York Post highlighted a trend among New Yorkers who present their dogs as service dogs, even though the animals have no formal training in disability assistance. The reason: By law, service dogs have virtually unrestricted access to establishments. The animals are allowed in hotels, taxis, sports arenas and airplanes — provided they don't obstruct emergency exits — as long as they don't pose a health or safety risk to others.

Related: Man has hang-gliding service dog

Current U.S. disability laws make it easy for a person to claim an untrained dog is a service dog, and the chances of getting caught are extremely low. It's a problem that's raised the ire of real service dog owners.

"The law right now is too loose and allows for anyone to have a dog as long as they say it is task trained," Karen Shirk, executive director and founder of 4 Paws for Ability, told MSN News. Shirk's nonprofit organization trains and provides service dogs to children and certain veterans. Shirk herself uses a service dog.

Related: Texas law gives a break to veterans with PTSD and their service pups

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, certification isn't required to qualify as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And although some states do provide certification, establishments "may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability."

Unscrupulous dog owners across the country are exploiting this loophole. Vests, harnesses, tags and badges are readily available on eBay, often for less than $20.  Some sellers are unapologetically aware of the pretense.

"All you need to do is show your card, and your [sic] good to go," one auctioneer states. "They can't stop you. You can bring your dog with you [anywhere] you go. ... You don't have to explain anything to anybody."

Other online retailers produce documentation that looks legitimate to the untrained eye. One example is the United States Service Dog Registry, which sells a service dog patch for $5. A complete package is available for $50 and includes the patch, a certificate — complete with watermark and holographic seal — a steel dog tag and two service dog ID cards. Despite this, the U.S. Service Dog Registry isn't a government agency; it issues documentation to anyone who claims their dog is properly trained. The vetting process stops there.

These low-cost schemes are particularly vexing to Shirk, who estimates that a properly trained service dog can cost at least $10,000 and require 300 hours of training.

"It makes me feel ill," she says. "When people fake their service dogs, it makes it so much harder for those with real service dogs to gain acceptance."

Shirk says that the only way to curb these abuses is tighter laws. "You should have to show proof, and it should be proof from an agency who trains dogs, not some online dummy ID."

Service dogs are different from therapy dogs, as well. Although both require formal training, therapy dogs are trained to be a source of emotional support and comfort. They frequently interact with hospital patients, people with special needs and senior citizens, but they do not have the same legal privileges as service dogs, according to the ADA.

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