Ease of online service dog registry pollutes legitimate needs

Service dog handlers hope for tougher restrictions on service dog registries

SAN ANTONIO – Websites allowing anyone to register their dog as a service dog are creating a stigma surrounding people who benefit from legitimate service animals, according to Service Dog Express.

A simple online search can turn up numerous sites that allow users to acquire leashes, vests, certificates, tags and cards that say their dog is a service dog, no documentation or proof required.

Some of the tags say the dog is allowed access to businesses and transportation under federal law.

In some cases, the only thing needed to complete the registry is a credit card payment.

Some of the sites provide a disclaimer saying it is illegal or unethical to register an animal as a fraudulent service dog, but there is nothing stopping someone from doing it.

"It's just really a discredit to the people who need and use these dogs," said Laurie Gawelko, owner and operator of Service Dog Express.

Troy Tallent, a veteran who survived an IED blast in 2005 and now uses a wheelchair, has help from his dog, Katie, to cope with mobility issues, PTSD, anxiety and seizures.

"Two weeks after we got her, she alerted me to a seizure," Tallent said. "We thought it was a fluke. But a couple days later, she alerted me again."

Lora Tompkins has experienced firsthand how fake service dogs can have a very real impact.

"It makes my life and Loki's life more difficult because now we have to take extra steps to prove that we are what we are, that we are that team and we are qualified to be that team," said Tompkins, who lives with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy.

"There are a number of people who bring their dogs in and can buy vests off the website, and ID tags off websites, and bring them in and the dogs do end up doing things like barking excessively or showing aggression," Gawelko said.

There is no national service dog registry that is federally regulated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In fact, there is no such thing as a certified service dog. The ADA requires dogs be trained to perform tasks to help with a disability, but it does not stipulate how a dog should be trained. The ADA allows an owner to train their own dog.

Businesses are allowed to ask customers with service dogs two questions: Is the dog a service dog required because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The ADA does not call for penalties for someone who tries to use a fake service dog. Under Texas law, a maximum fine of $300 or community service could be required if a business denies access to someone with a valid service dog or for "improper use of an assistance animal."

George Powers with the Southwest ADA Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston believes strengthening service dog requirements could restrict access to service dogs for those with legitimate needs.

Powers added that someone intent on abusing the rights of service dogs will find a way, despite any restrictions in place.

Tallent, Tompkins and fellow Service Dog Express client Anthony Pottebaum hope to see service dog registry websites regulated so that those "cheating the system" can no longer do so.

"Do the right thing. If you need a service dog, go through the right services. If not, leave your dog at home," said Pottebaum.

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