WBTV Investigates: Is that really a service dog?

Is that really a service dog?
Published: Jan. 27, 2017 at 4:16 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 7, 2017 at 2:11 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Eighteen inches tall, his nose in the morning air, our family's fur ball Max skips down a Charlotte street. He's excitable by nature, tends to pull the person walking him and he barks a little too much.

Max is a mixed breed, we got him from a rescue.  He has no noteworthy skills or tricks.  In fact, if you toss a ball, he'll ignore it. About the only thing he can do is sit and shake, but only if you have a treat.

Max couldn't be a more typical family pet, but with a quick online search, a few clicks of the computer and about $60, most will now see him as something much more.

A simple online order bought a red vest, ID cards, and a certificate in Max's name to our mailbox. It declared him a service dog. It would seem to open doors for him to go anywhere the public can go.

"Unfortunately there are dishonest people out there who will bend the rules," said Charlotte attorney Mike Hunter. "It causes a lot of problems for places that are open to the public."

Problems arise because no proof is required that a dog is truly a service dog. Max's new certificate and vests, while official looking, are actually completely unnecessary under federal law.

"You cannot ask anything about the nature, or the extent of the (dog owner's) disability. You cannot require a doctor's note or any kind of training certificate for the animal," said Hunter.

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It says, for privacy reasons, a business owner can only ask two questions. Is this a service dog? And what service does the dog provide?

Despite no requirement to do so, the state of North Carolina does encourage owners to register their service dogs with the Department of Health Human Services.  NC DHHS received on average 123 applications per year from 2012 to 2015. The number of total applications jumped 67% above that average to 216 last year.  The percentage of applications denied also spiked to more than 10% in 2016. The denial rate was just 1.4% the previous four years.  A spokesperson says most of those dogs denied in 2016 more accurately fit the description of an emotional support animal, not a service dog.

What is the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal?

The answer often confuses people and they interchange the terms. It is important to know they are two completely different classifications regulated under different federal laws. Click here for more information about the differences.

In the end, registration is an honor system. Few business owners would risk the embarrassment of even questioning whether a dog is truly providing that service. Especially one wearing a service dog vest that most trainers recommend.

"(Business owners) are very reluctant to ask many questions because they don't want to appear in the next news story," said dog trainer Debbie Lange.

Lange is the owner of 'The Dog Knowledge' in east Charlotte. Her business trains everyday pets. Her non-profit trains service dogs.

"There is nothing as rewarding as when you see the look on somebody's face when they have a dog that will help them," said Lange.

Her dogs help everyone from veterans returning from war to children overcoming disabilities. She says demand for service dogs is booming and it's creating another issue, animals being sold as service dogs that aren't properly trained.  She says it is happening because the service dog industry is completely unregulated.  The American with Disabilities Acts says there is no requirement to use a professional service dog training program.

"I'd have to have a license to cut your hair, give you a manicure, but I don't have to have a license to train your dog, said Lange. "(With) no background you could say I'm a service dog trainer."

Lange's dogs open doors, pick things up, brace people after a fall and much more.  It takes several hundreds of hours of specialized training. She says too many supposed trainers are claiming they can turn any dog into a service dog.

"That is nonsense," said Lange. "It would be the same analogy of a place saying I only raise Kentucky Derby winning horses. It's that very, very special dog that has what it takes, to have the environmental fortitude to be able to walk out in a crowd, to be able to have cameras in their face, to be able to hear a crash and not react."

"This is Aquata," said Courtney Thorpe, holding her young retriever on her lap. "She is my service dog."

Courtney Thorpe is 17 years old.  She's battled depression, panic attacks and seizures that often work in a sort of chain reaction.

"Every time I go into a panic attack, we call her over and she helps me," said Thorpe. "A lot of times it will even keep me from going into a seizure."

The training for dogs like Aquata is expensive which means mistakes can be very costly.

"(We're out) probably over $20,000," said John Fortin.

$20,000 is what John and Zoe Fortin of Sherills Ford spent on Achilles. He's a 2-year-old retriever with a lot of puppy still in him. The Fortins bought the dog to help their son Ronald who was headed off to college in Florida. Ronald has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

"It was going to be his safety at school," said Zoe Fortin.

The Fortins say they did their homework and their due diligence. They found a trainer who flew to Michigan to bring home just the right dog.

"We had our suspicions about halfway, three-quarters of the way through the process," said John Fortin.

Achilles wasn't learning the jobs they needed for Ronald. They tried taking him to other trainers, but it was too late, he was past the point where he could learn the skills. Making matters worse, Achilles wasn't even healthy. He has hip dysplasia, a disorder that a trainer should have spotted early on.  By this time Ronald had become fully attached to Achilles, who was simply a very lovable pet, not the service dog they paid for.

"I will never forget the day we sat down with Ronald and told him the dog is not going (to college), it's just not going to work," said John Fortin. "He was in tears immediately."

The Fortins have started a drive to get the attention of lawmakers in Washington.

"There are stories throughout the nation of people who have had this happen to them," said John Fortin. "Something has to be done."

Lange and other reputable trainers are pushing for regulations that would require service dogs to be trained to an agreed upon obedience standard. They would like an impartial board set up to show the dogs have the skill sets to provide a legitimate service to cut the chances of people being ripped off.

"There are people so desperate, especially parents," said Lange. "They would pay anything if they believed that a dog was the answer that would change their child's life."

Congressman Robert Pittenger a Republican from Charlotte says he recognizes the importance of this issue, but his office said as "as a federalist, he believes this issue should be addressed by the states.

Many think it would be difficult for states to do much as far as regulations go, as service dogs are covered under the federal law the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina has been pushing to ensure veterans have access to service dogs. He has sponsored the PAWS Act which his offices says would expand a pilot program that provides service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

"The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) does not require service dog trainers to be professionally trained," said Tillis. "It's despicable that there are some people who abuse the ADA for their own personal gain."

Tillis says leaders at all levels should work to protect people with disabilities from fraud and better educate communities about service dogs.

WBTV Investigates also reached out to North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr and Democratic Representative Alma Adams of Charlotte. Neither responded to our request for comment.

Lange and Fortin say they will continue to push the issue to bring some regulations to an industry mostly void of any.  Until then it is up to consumers to be extra careful to make sure they are truly getting a service dog.

As for Max, he'll never put on that mail-order service dog vest. He will be what he has always been a simple, lovable family pet.

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