Jul 15, 2014 11:20 PM by Maddie Garrett
News 5 investigates people who abuse the system, by claiming their household pet is a service dog to help a disability. The practice is becoming more common, but there are loopholes in the law that allow people to slip through.
For people who truly need a service dog, like Dale Coski, this practice is doing them and the family pets a disservice.
Coski was a young Denver Police Officer in 1983, when she was involved in a terrible accident.
"I was out of my police car and struck by another vehicle and thrown into the trunk of my police car," recalled Coski.
At that moment, her life changed forever. She had a spinal cord injury, she became quadraplegic and had to have an above the knee amputation of her leg. Since then she has had four service dogs as her partners.
"They're a gift from God," said Coski.
The dogs are a gift that can help her do what she can't, like pick up items, open doors and get out in the world. Coski said the dogs do more than just assist her in mobility, but are a gift of life in her darkets hours.
"(They) Basically gave me a reason really to live in that I was responsible for the dog," said Coski.
All of her service dogs were trained at Canine Partners of the Rockies in Denver, an accredited service dog provider.
"This is not a pet, this is a working dog with a working partnership," explained Angela Eaton, Executive Director of Canine Partners of the Rockies.
True service dogs go through years of intensive training, costing thousands of dollars. They are certified and provide true service and assistance to someone with a disability.
"The dog isn't going to get them out of a wheelchair but does get them out of their house and allow them to live more independently than they would without the dog," said Eaton.
But more people are finding a way around that system, thanks to the internet. There's an online registry that only takes about five minutes. It's a legitimate registry, but you don't have to provide any proof of a disability or that the dog is even in training.
You can even shop around for service dog vests and badges online. News 5 purchased these, it only cost about $75 and a couple of days later we recieved our official vest and badge in the mail.
We decided to test it out with Sam, a family pet, that we dressed up as a service dog. He walked right into several Colorado Springs businesses.
News 5 was honest when asked if Sam was a true service animal, telling the businesses he was not. Gold Hill Java Manager Charlie Banks had this to say after we asked her if she had ran into this issue before.
"There's not really a clear cut law on it, so it's hard, we don't want to kick somebody out if they need a service dog," said Banks.
But she also admitted that they have had to ask people with illegitimate service animals to leave. Banks said she estimates they get fake service dogs like Sam at least once a week.
"All the time, I think we've had one or two legitimate," she said.
At another business, the manager told News 5, she would probably have had to let Sam stay if we hadn't told her he wasn't a true service animal. While the manager said she didn't think Sam looked like a legitimate service dog, she would be weary of asking us to leave.
The American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as only dogs. The ADA outlines very specific requirements for service animals, as dogs who are guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person having a seizure, reminding someone with a mental disability to take required medications, or calming someone having an anxiety attack because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The ADA goes on to say, the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability.
There are also medical service dogs that might not be as obvious.
"A medical disability is sometimes hard to identify, if it's Type 1 Diabetes for example, the person looks fine," explained Eaton.
Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
"People call us all the time and it's because they want to fly their dog in the passenger section of the airlines, they want to take their dogs to restaurants," said Eaton.
But there's not much businesses can do to question someone with a service animal, true or not.
The ADA says businesses can only ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.
"I think it's ridiculous, I mean people are taking advantage of it, just to let their dog in. There's a reason dogs are not allowed in restaurants," said Banks.
Reports of dogs, claimed to be service animals, defecating on planes, in stores and restaurants, are becoming more common.
"These business owners don't know where to turn," said Eaton.
The ADA does outline some rights that businesses have. Staff can ask a person with a service dog to leave if the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or if the dog is not housebroken.
"We have to be careful, if this small business is sued, there will be no more small business," explained Banks.
This practice makes it harder for the people who truly need a service dog, like Coski.
"And so it makes it rough for all of us, in that people kind of question (you)," said Coski.
The people dressing up their family pets as service animals not only could be putting their own dog in a bad situation, but Coski said it puts those with disabilities at a disadvantage as well.
"They're just abusing it for the people who really need it," said Coski. "I just hope that they never have to be in a position where they actually need a service dog."
It is against the law to lie about having a service dog. Eaton said there are some ways to tell if a service dog is real or not. She said a true service animal will be no more than 24 inches from the partner's side, will be leashed or tethered to their partner unless they can't be on a leash to perform certain tasks. She said the dog will be well behaved, at ease, and unobtrusive.
Eaton said signs that an animal is not a service dog could be barking, pulling on the leash, using the bathroom in inappropriate places, being carried or in someone's lap or showing signs of stress such as heavy panting and wide eyes.
For more on the ADA rules and guidelines, click here: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
Click here to find out more about Canine Partners of the Rockies: http://www.caninepartnersoftherockies.org/index.html