AUSTIN (KXAN) — Yancy Baer wakes up each morning and gets help from his dog Verbena or Beanz.
“I don’t like to keep things around my bed, being an amputee, and so she will bring me my socks. She can bring me shoes, my prosthetic,” said Baer, an Army veteran and service dog owner.
Baer also works as a firearms instructor at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Baer says Beanz assists not only him, but the veterans at the rehabilitation center. “Sometimes it’s just the boost that they need to keep going through the day for their rehabilitation.”
But he also says he occasionally runs into challenges. Many people with disabilities, such as Baer, legitimately need a service animal, but a KXAN Investigation found websites and policies can enable sneaky pet owners, who want to abuse the laws, to get out of paying a pet deposit at an apartment, let their animals fly free or even gain access to restaurants with their pets.
“The people who are out there misrepresenting service dogs is one of the [largest], if not the largest problem we have,” said Baer. “You have dogs who don’t have public access rights who aren’t trained to responsibly behave in public. They bark, they growl, they lunge at other dogs or people even.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals can only be dogs. The canines also have to be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. That could mean guiding someone with impaired hearing to a noise, having a dog trained to alert a person with diabetes that their blood sugar is too high or too low, or any number of other tasks. However, the ADA does not give public access to therapy dogs or emotional support animals.
Still, the ADA isn’t the only law outlining which animals are allowed in public places. The Texas rules and the American with Disabilities Act require dogs have training, but they don’t mandate extensive training for service dogs from companies or non-profits.
“You have dogs who don’t have public access rights who aren’t trained to responsibly behave in public. They bark, they growl, they lunge at other dogs or people even.”–Yancy Baer, service dog owner.
At the same time, The Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act have broader definitions for service animals, allowing for emotional support animals without specific training.
All of these laws are meant to protect people with disabilities. Current laws also limit the questions someone can ask a person with a service dog.
Baer has experience there too. He remembers feeling humiliated when an employee denied him and Beanz access to a coffee shop.
Now, Baer tries to educate business owners about the rights of people with disabilities and their service animals. While he’s been educating people, he’s also noticed an issue that hurts the work he’s trying to do: Baer believes some pet owners are falsely passing off pets as service animals.
“That’s a danger to my service dog, who truly is a service dog, who has countless volunteer hours by her puppy raisers, the breeders, the organization itself — just for a dog that’s not a true service dog to lunge, growl, bark, and possibly attack her one day,” said Baer. “It would just be horrendous. It would be absolutely horrible to be honest.”
Laws currently require no identification or government certification for service animals. The concept is not to burden the people who need service animals. However, the provisions have also opened up opportunities for abuse.
The president and founder of Service Dogs Inc., Sheri Soltes, says she also hears about people trying to pass off their untrained pets as service animals. She says abuse of the laws makes her industry look bad, along with being unfair to businesses or customers.
“It can be dangerous if the dog’s training is bad because of a poorly-trained dog is put in a situation that’s over its head. Fear is the main cause of aggression,” said Soltes.
“They’re just as unethical as selling a lab coat and having someone pass themselves off as a doctor.” –Sheri Soltes, founder, Service Dogs, Inc.
The dogs can take a year or more to train.
“Although these dogs cost $45,000 to train, we train and provide them completely free of charge,” said Soltes.
When KXAN News visited the non-profit, trainers were working with a dog to perform specific tasks for his owner. The dog was learning to remove a blanket from the lap of a trainer in a wheelchair, for a person who would not be able to do so themselves. The organization also acclimates the dogs to going out in public.
After dogs finish this kind of training or is self trained by a person with a disability, they are now service dogs.
Some legitimate service dog owners will find websites to get ID cards for their dogs. Again, the IDs are not required under the law, but some people with disabilities feel they help ease concerns from business owners who do not understand the current system. But the websites offering those IDs often ask for little supporting information.
“There’s nothing out there that really prosecutes [the websites], but they’re just as unethical as selling a lab coat and having someone pass themselves off as a doctor,” said Soltes.
KXAN News tested one of the websites to see how easy the process is. The site asked for an email, the name of a dog, an email address and about $40. We uploaded a picture of Scooby-Doo, entered the name “Scooby,” and paid. Soon after, the ID came in the mail–no questions asked. Although, the printed card did not have the cartoon picture we uploaded.
“Should I be able to do that?,” asked KXAN Investigator Kevin Schwaller.
“No, We shouldn’t let that happen,” said Texas Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. “Unfortunately you’re going to always have people that are abusing the system. It sounds like that’s exactly what’s happening. And that’s shameful.”
Sen. Uresti helped pass a 2013 law that expanded service dog protections for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “We passed this bill for a reason, to help them cope with their daily challenges. Let’s not let a few, which it sounds like this is happening right now, a small percentage of folks mess it up for everybody else.”
Uresti said he’ll consider changing parts of the law if he notices too many people are skirting the rules. But, he also wants to be careful not to make life more difficult for veterans and others who depend on the rules for service dogs.
“I don’t know that state law is going to be able to fix anything else with that,” said Baer. “I think stricter enforcement of the current laws is what needs to happen. Maybe a greater fine for people who do try to pass on a pet as a service dog. Because that causes problems for service dog owners and business owners as a whole.”
Baer and Sen. Uresti both point to the need for better education, both for business owners and pet owners.
As for enforcement, the Texas law outlines two service dog-related crimes. If someone denies proper access to a service dog, they are guilty of a misdemeanor–which carries a fine up to $300 and 30 hours of community service. Using a harness or leash to misrepresent a dog as a trained service dog also carries the same penalties.
KXAN News found no local cases of anyone getting in trouble for misrepresenting a service dog after checking with Austin and Travis County courts, Austin police and state agencies. However, that does not necessarily mean people are not violating the law. The laws can also be tough to enforce.
Under the ADA, employees can only ask two questions if a dog is not obviously a service dog:
(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Any other question would be against the law.
Baer and others strive for a balance. Too much enforcement or questioning to stop abusers of the laws, could end up hurting the people the rules aim to protect.
“I believe it’s an education problem in the United States as a whole,” said Baer. “[People with disabilities have told me getting a service dog has] made them have to stay at home because when they go out in public so many people look at the dog and ask questions about the dog.”
Baer says sometimes in those cases it causes greater anxiety, when in some cases anxiety is the very thing a dog is supposed to help prevent and manage.