Service dog scams putting people 'at risk'
Posted November 18, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Trained service dogs often act as the eyes, ears, arms or legs of their disabled handlers, helping them cross the street, get on elevators and do other daily tasks. But spotting a true service dog is not always easy.
Some pet owners break federal law by buying vests for their untrained dogs to get them into restaurants, grocery stores and even on flights. A big part of the problem, experts say, is that anyone can go online and easily buy assistance dog vests, identification and supposed certification, even though none of it is required for a true service dog.
“I think it points to the general slide of our culture into selfishness,” said service dog owner Kevin Korobko, of Cary. “A poorly trained ‘service dog,’ it just puts everyone around, for lack of a better word, at risk.”
When Korobko goes into a restaurant or business with his service dog, Glenda, he says he prays that an imposter service dog doesn’t walk by.
“When you throw into the mix an unpredictably behaved fake service dog, you know it’s just, it’s just asking for trouble," Korobko said. “If (Glenda) gets excited, she’s going to rip my arm off."
Glenda was trained at Canine Companions for Independence. She was specifically matched with Korobko, who uses a wheelchair, to help him with numerous tasks, including retrieving his keys, pushing elevator buttons, picking up the phone and turning on and off light switches.
Korobko and other service dog owners say they face increased questioning and discrimination, as well as serious safety concerns, as a result of imposter service dogs.
“Why would you do that to someone who’s already at a disadvantage because of their physical limitation? Just because you can’t be separated from your pet for an hour?” he said.
Korobko says he would like to see more regulation, including standardized identification for service dogs, which he could show to business owners. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, business owners can only ask two questions: Is that a service dog and what task is the dog trained to do?
While some pet owners blatantly abuse the law, others are simply confused about it. Trained therapy dogs, for example, that work in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and courthouses, as well as emotional support dogs that provide comfort and companionship, do not have public access rights.
Charlie Blackmon contacted 5 On Your Side after his dog, Zeus, was denied access to a flea market. Blackmon says he adopted Zeus from a rescue and was told that the dog was trained to be a service dog for someone else.
Although Zeus was not trained to help Blackmon, he says the dog alerts him to take medication if his heart rate drops and will get help if he passes out.
"He serves a purpose for me," Blackmon said, tearing up.
During his interview with 5 On Your Side, Blackmon had to physically restrain Zeus from chasing after another dog and had to repeatedly tell him to sit.
"Yeah, he's wearing a service vest. Yes, I guess in one sense you can say I'm passing him off as a service dog. And it's breaking my heart. I thought I was doing everything right," he said, crying. "I've talked to so many different people. Everybody tells you something different."
The 5 On Your Side team helped Blackmon see that Zeus isn't fully trained to be a service dog. Although Blackmon was trying to do the right thing, not everyone has good intentions.
A YouTube video posted March 4, called “Making a mockery of the service dog industry,” shows a man laughing as he takes his dog on a bus and into a restaurant.
“I don’t feel like walking home, so I came up with an idea. I just went and bought him a muzzle, and now we’re going to try to get on the bus and make him a disabled dog,” the man says. “I’m just going to make pretend that I’m some burn out whose brain cells are fried from years of drug abuse and see if we can’t get on the bus. Well, I don’t have to pretend, but whatever.”
The man smiles smugly into the camera as they ride the bus and says, “Good service dog.”
“This service dog scam works pretty good,” he says, before finally being denied entrance to a movie theater.
A WRAL News staffer recently observed a woman walking around a local grocery store with her dog, which she outfitted with a vest and identified as a service dog.
“He is the best (expletive) emotional support … after my boyfriend broke up with me,” she said.
Korobko says it’s situations like these that make him wary about being out in public.
“It makes me think twice about bringing my dog out, which is a shame,” he said.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs can serve as service animals. A WRAL photographer saw "service monkeys" at the North Carolina State Fair this year.
True service dogs are highly trained and become nearly invisible in public. They don’t jump, bark or eat off the floor. They quickly obey their handler’s commands and stay passive. Passing off a dog as a service dog is a crime and owners can be fined or, in extreme cases, face federal fraud charges.