If it looks like a service dog and acts like a service dog, is it?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – When is a “service dog” not a service dog? When it wears the iconic “service dog” vest, backed up by service dog certification, to look the part, but does not fill the role as proscribed by federal law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act specifically provides certain rights and privileges to service animals, such as riding on a train or bus for free, but there is no specific government-issued license or documentation to certify service animals.

That has not stopped dozens of businesses around the country from convincing dog owners–through slick interactive websites–that buying service dog vests and certificates entitles their pets to all the rights and privileges bestowed on a legitimate service dog.

Some advocates for veterans and the disabled argue, the ambiguities in the ADA actually seem to embolden those Internet businesses peddling service animal merchandise to exploit the law for big profits.

Chris Kreiger president of WNY Heroes, a support group for veterans, has seen the advertisements, “There’s a lot of websites out there that will say, ‘pay us $120 we will send you a vest, we will send you an ID card,’” and many times people will simply use those props to falsely claim their pets are service animals when they are not.

Ironically, Kreiger points out, the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t require proof, either, “I know under ADA, you don’t need to have a marker, you don’t need to have a vest, you don’t need to have identification stating that your animal is a service animal.”

But Frank Cammarata, executive director for Erie County’s Office for the Disabled said the law does require a service animal to be able to assist its handler with specific disabilities, “For example, somebody who has a seizure disorder, or somebody who is blind or visually impaired,” their lives might depend on their service dogs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes three types of “assistance animals”–service animals, those for emotional support, and therapy animals—only the service animals are permitted by law to go wherever their handler goes, including restaurants, grocery stores, trains, and buses.

Kreiger is adamant service animals are not pets, “Don’t pet them, don’t blow kisses to them, don’t act like these are your friends. They are not here for their entertainment. They are there to do a job for whoever that indivdual is with them.”

How would a business know if a dog is actually a service animal, or posing as one? Cammarata said the ADA only permits an establishment or inquiring party to ask two questions for confirmation, “Is this animal required because of a disability, and what task is this animal trained to perform?”

On the other hand Kreiger said, vests, certificates, and other identifying items can make it easier for legitimate service animals and their handlers to venture into areas where pets are not allowed. That is why WNY Heroes distributes their own paraphernalia to service animals and their handlers, after they have been properly trained.

By the way, the ADA only allows two types of animals to fill the role of service animal, dogs and miniature horses. Kreiger expects a lot more veterans to seek the assistance of service dogs, and he would like for the government to tighten up the law, to weed out the imposters.

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