RENO, NV - It's a cool fall day, and Liz Hansen is out at a park, enjoying the weather. It may seem like an everyday task for most people, but for Liz, it is a big step forward.
Trained seeing eye dog help blind person.
After serving a year in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army National Guard, Hansen came back physically whole. But her time overseas changed her.
"I would withdraw from society, withdraw from my family, withdraw from my kids," she said.
But night time was especially difficult.
"You see a lot of things, and when your back and you're trying to sleep, the rockets still come."
After learning of a fellow soldier's suicide, Hansen decided it was time for help. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but took a more modern approach in treating it.
With Hansen in the park is Blue, a one year old service dog in training. He was prescribed to Hansen by her doctor as an Emotional Support Animal.
It's part of a growing trend. Instead of being reserved for people with visible disabilities, service animals are being used more often for emotional support; like helping treat PTSD.
"Doctors will prescribe a dog to be with a person at all times as a companion versus a direct aid to physical mobility," explain Jeff Blanck, a lawyer specializing in Civil Liberties.
For Liz, Blue and her other service animal Jack have helped break her out of her shell and forced her back into society.
"When you have a dog, you can't just stay in the house," she said. "You've got to buy it food, you have to take it for walks."
But with service animals being used to treat more invisible disabilities, there has been a rise in what is now being called the ' Fake Service Animal'.
Kelsey Mammen has been training service animals for the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind for about eight years. She says she has seen a few people in the area try to pass off their pet as a service animal.
"It's hard to actually know if the person needs the dog or not," she said. "It's very easy for people to get things that say they are a service dog when they don't actually need them."
It's as simple as typing Amazon.com. There you can find vests and patches; all items most people would associate with a service animal.
Although many of the vendors on Amazon warn customers that it is illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal, you don't need any proof of a medical need to purchase these items.
That's because there is no law that requires service animals to be identified through vests or patches. But people who try to pass off their pets as a service animal are counting on business owners being less likely to question an animal with a vest.
"I don't think it's right," Emily Cook a fellow Guide Dog for the Blind trainer. "I think we need to have service dogs for people who actually need them not for people who just want to take their dog into the store."
The Americans with Disabilities Act states that it is a federal crime to use a fake dog, but enforcement is tough. Businesses and people cannot ask for proof that the animal is needed to treat a medical condition.
"The question then for the proprietor then becomes, "Well is that true or not?" Blanck said. "Well, for the physical disabilities that's easy to see, for the others, I feel their in bounds to ask for some type of verification."
But under the act, you can only ask two questions: 'Is the dog a service animal,' and 'What task has the animal been trained to perform?'
"Are there going to be people who abuse the system, yes," Blanck said "There always are. But does that mean the majority of service animals should be disallowed. No. But it does put a business owner in a precarious situation to say, 'How far can you challenge this?'"
These fake service animals are making things hard for people like Hansen. She says even though she had medical documentation, she was still faced with challenges when it came to bringing her dog to work.
"I heard it all," she said. " Everything from, 'What if people are afraid?' or 'What if they are allergic?' I know if I had suddenly needed a wheel chair, they wouldn't have given me that hard of a time."
The fake service animals are also making things hard for the people who train the real ones because many people don't take the time to properly train their pet.
"We see it occasionally when we're out in public, there will be other dogs that aren't necessarily service dogs and you can just tell by their behaviors," Cook said.
"One of the things we as puppy handlers run into is once somebody who owns a business encounters one of these fake service dogs that is behaving badly they are much less likely to be welcoming of your dog," Mammen said.
Cook says dogs who are not properly trained distract the puppies she and other people are training.
But vests and patches aren't the only things people are using to get around pet restrictions. If you search online for 'Service Animal Registration', you'll find a long list of websites claiming for a fee you can register your pet as a service animal and be exempt from pet fees and bans.
Ed Smith works with rescue dogs and trains them to become service animals for soldiers here in the area. He says he is often approached by people who have less than honorable intentions.
"A lot of people come to me asking about training," he said. "A lot of them have disabilities, but they're not doing it for the disability. They're doing it to get around breed restrictions. A lot of places don't allow the more powerful breeds, so they'll want to register their dog as a service dog to get around legislation."
But registering a dog doesn't mean it fulfills the requirements of a service animal.
If you're thinking that could be a good way to not have to pay rent for your pet, be warned. Despite what the ADA says, under the Fair Housing Act, landlords can ask for written verification from a medical professional that the service animal is needed. They just can't ask details about the medical condition.
SO HOW CAN WE CURB THE USE OF FAKE SERVICE ANIMALS?
"It may come down to the state saying 'Fine, you have a service animal, apply and we'll issue this card and you can just go in with your service animal." Blanck said.
But Hansen has some concerns.
I'm torn, because in order to regulate it, I have to disclose more of my medical condition," she said. "And I don't know if that's something I want to do."
Those who use and train service animals are hoping social pressure and awareness of the laws already in place will help stop more people from using fake service animals. There is no legal requirement for service animals to be visibly identified or have documentation. They can also be any size, breed, or weight. .
"You see a chihuahua with a vest on and you think 'Eh, that might not be a legitimate service dog,'" Mammen said. "But you just never know. Maybe that person is suffering from depression and the only thing keeping them going is their dog.
One thing to look for to help spot a fake service dog is the animals behavior. If it seems distracted, sniffing at things and wandering around, that is a good indicator that it is not a service animal. Businesses do have the right to ask a person with an animal, even if it is a legitimate service animal, to leave if it is disruptive and causing problems.