Service Dog, Therapy Dog Or a Fraud?

01/05/2009 at 12:00 PM EST

Service Dog, Therapy Dog Or a Fraud?
Zuma/People
How can a restaurant owner tell the difference between a pet owner who just wants to take their dog to dinner and someone who really needs that dog to see, hear, get around or deal with an unseen illness? The short answer is they can't. There is no federal service dog license--or even clear standards.

Meanwhile, dog people increasingly think of their charges as part of the family and want to bring them everywhere. Gradually, businesses and governments are becoming more pet-friendly. Chicago even passed a law recently that allows outdoor doggie dining.

But dog parents are still brushing up against what many consider onerous restrictions–like airline rules that dogs over 20 pounds must fly in cargo. As a result, several Web sites have popped up offering official-looking dog vests and papers, no hands-on evaluation required.

"What is out there is places trying to make a buck, sometimes with letter from doctor, sometimes you don't even need that," says Michelle Cobey of the Delta Society, which trains therapy dogs.

But new Web sites that offer easily-issued service dog certificates could cause a problem for people with real needs. "It's an ever-growing percentage of self-absorbed people who are willing to fraudulently represent themselves as service dog users who potentially jeopardize the rights of legitimate service dog users," says Jim Power, field service manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Over the last 20 years trainers have graduated a profusion of improbable animal helpers. Wonder dogs can warn their owners of oncoming epileptic fits, blood sugar drops and other heart ailments. Small breeds have become hearing dogs. Miniature horses guide the blind (and live longer than dogs). Monkeys lend a hand to quadriplegics.

Within the dog community and the federal government, though, there is disagreement over whether to offer protections to dogs that help their owners with psychiatric or emotional problems or therapy dogs that comfort patients in hospitals or nursing homes.

"I get so many calls from people in tears who have a legitimate service dog they've trained themselves," says Delta Society's Cobey. "They're thrown out of stores, they're screamed at, they're yelled at."

People with disabilities that people can't see–particularly psychiatric disorders–are especially subject to discrimination, says Michael Torchia, a celebrity dog trainer who founded Healthy Pet Nation.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act the only questions proprietors are allowed to ask are whether it's a service animal and what task it performs. (Therapy dogs have fewer rights and may have to produce a letter.) Tighter proposed service dog rules, however, demand training for specific tasks and ban many species.

Some people are looking for some kind of standard, like American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program, which rigorously tests for excellent manners. Torchia would like to see more businesses like Urth Caffé, a Hollywood favorite that accommodates dogs. "I'm fighting for everyone who has loving well behaved pets," he says.

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