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Imposter service dogs becoming a big problem

8:21 AM, Oct 11, 2013   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Have you ever seen somebody in the store with a dog wearing one of those "service animal" vests and wondered ... is that legit? 

Well, there's a growing effort to crack down on the owners of those "imposter" service dogs, because they're having a negative impact on the people who rely on the real thing. 

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Service dogs are the Phi Beta Kappa of dogs. They are to canines what astronaut-neurosurgeons are to you and me: highly motivated and super talented. 

So why are people proffering imposter pooches? Because they can. 

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By law, service dogs have almost unlimited access everywhere. And if you're selfish enough, that law is easy to get around.

We watched Henry, a 3-year-old Golden-Lab mix, go through the paces of a top-notch service dog at Canine Assistants in Milton.
From the moment he could stand up, he's been training: opening doors, retrieving medication, turning on lights. He's able to walk around almost invisibly in public places, to find a quiet place to sit beneath a chair to curl up while his owner eats or watches a movie. And most importantly, he can alert his owner to impending trouble.

But make no mistake ... Henry's not a pet. He is a certified service dog. 

"We take quite a lot of care to make sure all of our dogs are sort of generalizing the behaviors that we teach them in public places," said Kevin Balance, an instructor with Canine Assistants. "And doing it in such a way that it's not scary (for the dog)." 

Henry often wears a marked vest, but service dogs do not need them. They mostly wear one to help you know what they do.

But a growing number of unscrupulous dog owners are buying similar vests off the Internet so they can take their pets with them into stores, restaurants, theaters, even on airplanes. 

"If you take your pet, who's normally just at home with you, throw a pack on him and put him in the public like that, it's really scary for them," said Karen Casto, a placement specialist with Canine Assistants. 

It's also illegal. 

You can dress your dog up anyway you want, but you cannot claim it's for your health. And while health questions about you cannot be asked, there are two questions a business owner can ask if they suspect someone has an imposter service dog. 

"Is this a service dog? The answer is yes or no," said Casto. "And then the next question they can ask is what does this dog do for you?" 

The answer has to be concrete, not something vague like "He helps me feel better."

And while it may be difficult to tell if the owner is truly disabled, the dog itself may be a lot easier to discern through its suspect behavior. 

For example, Henry's training cost $21,000. That's more than two years tuition at UGA. And the thoroughness of it shows. 

"For the people like our recipients who really do need (the service dogs), when you sort of abuse the privilege of taking a dog out in public, it become a serious situation for those who need it," said Balance. 

So how can you tell if a dog really is a service animal? 

Some signs can be fairly obvious. Imposter dogs are likely not to have the quiet easy-going temperament or be as house-broken as a trained service dog. And by the way, a therapy dog is not considered the same as a service dog. 

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