St. Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke puts a lot of care and expense into training and placing its dogs. It takes two years and $25,000 to train one dog which is placed with its partner for free. "For those of us that are working very hard to place professional service dogs with people with disabilities," said Cabell Youell. "It's frustrating to see people take advantage."
Dog owners are taking advantage of the vests St. Francis and other legitimate dogs wear to show they've been professionally trained. "It's an increasing problem. People are able to get service dog vests online."
Youell says service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for its partner but lately she says she's been answering calls from more and more businesses with customers bringing in dogs who don't behave like this. "A valid service dog is usually completely unobtrusive, quite, very clean and brings no attention to itself."
Part of the problem, Youell says there's no regulation, no registry and no one officially keeping track.
"People with a disability shouldn't have to tell a hostess at a restaurant what their disability is in order to get a table," Youell said. "People take advantage of that to pretend they have one." She says the laws designed to protect Americans with disabilities create the loophole for imposters to get in because you can't ask someone what their disability is. You can; however, ask what task a dog performs. "For others to come in and take advantage of that so they can take their pet places not only undermines the entire service dog industry but it really undermines the rights of people with disabilities."
Youell is now working to educate business owners on what they can look for and when they can ask a dog and its owner to leave.
It can be even more challenging knowing whether a dog you're seeing is a real service dog because there are a number of assistance dogs available right now. There are veteran dogs that help veterans suffering from PTSD. St. Francis also trains dogs who work in educational settings.
Youell says it's important to pay attention to a dog's behavior and also how the owners are handling the dogs for indications it's fake.