FORT MYERS, Fla. - We all know trained service dogs play a crucial role in the lives of those who actually need them. But, if you can believe it, some people are cheating the system and dressing up their own pets as fake service animals. It's troubling trend that advocates for people with disabilities say has been growing.
"Addy" walks side-by-side with Michael Pierce all day long. The dog worked 20 months to be a trained service dog for Pierce, who is blind. "They're so valuable," Pierce said. "It's about $50,000 worth of training you see sitting here."
Go on YouTube and you'll find a dog named "Bubs."
"I just bought him a muzzle. Now we are going to try to get on the bus and make him a disabled dog," the owners said.
The video shows the owner taking the dog around town to spots normal pets aren't allowed. "This service dog scam works pretty good," the owner says.
Through a quick search online, you'll find all kinds of vests, harnesses and service dog ID kits for sale. Pierce, an Americans with Disabilities Act Advocate says it's a terrible trend - people faking service animals simply to bring pets into restaurants and businesses.
"Over the last three years, we've noticed it because of all the internet sales," Pierce said. "It has to do an actual service. People who are mobility challenged, it may pick up things for them, turn on light switches things like that. For those of us who are visually impaired, it keeps us from running into walls and off curbs."
Often, the "fake" service dogs' bad behavior gives working dogs a bad rep. "The difference is temperament and training," Pierce said.
Service dogs are allowed anywhere the public is. Under federal law, business owners can ask two questions: is this a service dog? And, what is it trained to do?
"It's kind of touchy sometimes," April Brooks of Pro Files Salon in Fort Myers said. "You don't want to offend anyone. If they do have a service dog or a vest, of course, they're more than welcome. People who are trying to pass through regular loved pets as service animals, that's pretty tacky."
Real Estate Lawyer Richard DeBoest says people will even claim their pet is a service dog to avoid restrictions or paying pet fees at places like condos. "It's an abuse to the system and a real slap in the face to the people who has legitimate seeing eye dogs who need them for legitimate reasons," DeBoest said.
Fighting it though, can be risky. "The biggest problem is, if that an association - condo or homeowner's - really wants to dig in its heels and stop and fight this, if they are wrong and they lose, the penalties can be substantial," DeBoest said.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a federal crime to pretend your dog is a trained service dog. Under Florida law, it isn't a crime. But, advocates are asking lawmakers to change that. The Florida Council of the Blind has written to several state officials, as well as Governor Rick Scott asking for they help to discourage the practice.