Christina St. Blancard says she would give anything to have her hearing back. Childhood infections caused severe hearing loss. Now, her service dog Tatiana helps her compensate. The shiny black Labrador alerts Christina if she doesn't hear the timer on the stove or a knock at the door.
Tatiana, a trained service dog, doesn’t just make life easier, she actually saved it. When St. Blancard stopped breathing because of asthma two and a half years ago, the dog sensed that something was terribly wrong and alerted Christina’s parents.
Tatiana goes everywhere with St. Blancard. Even though she always wears a vest that identifies her as a service dog, lately some businesses give her a hard time.
“I get challenged. I get denied access. I’ve been humiliated,” St. Blancard said. “It’s just something, it's just an everyday thing."
A big part of the problem is that it’s really easy for pet owners to buy service dog vests that look real on websites. Team 6 Investigators ordered a vest online, and got it just four days later, complete with cards that say the dog’s “right to accompany my handler is protected by federal law.” To get the vest, no questions were asked, and no training was required of the dog. Just by donning the vest, an untrained pet looks just like an authentic service dog.
Using hidden cameras, NBC talked to dog owners about how easy it is to skirt the law. One man had this to say, “If you say you have a service dog they can't throw your dog out? We've actually done it before."
Lybbi Kienzle is a service dog trainer for the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI. She feels people who turn their pets into phony service dogs are despicable. She’s also disturbed that anyone can buy a service vest because laws governing service dogs are weak.
Right now, the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA says that to qualify as a service dog, the animal must be “trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Kienzle says real service dogs train for years learning to be invisible in public places. She believes requiring the dog to pass a test might be the answer.
It’s tough for business owners too to know whether a dog is a real service animal because the ADA says they can ask just two questions: is the dog required because of a disability and what task has the dog been trained to perform?
A Team 6 producer tested the law with her dog Minnie and Maltipoo’s new service vest at two restaurants. Through the takeout window, we asked if we could bring in our dog. An employee hesitated until another employee noticed the vest, and said yes. At a second restaurant, we made the same request from the patio area. This time, a manager said he’d prefer we sit outside.
In the meantime, St. Blancard is worried that it’s going to get harder to take Tatiana everywhere, and sends a stern message to those who are pretending their dogs are service dogs.
“You’re messing with human lives, and that’s what people need to understand,” she said.
By the way, proposed legislation could make pretending to be disabled to get the same accommodations regarding service dogs a misdemeanor in Florida. CCI has launched a petition asking the federal government to ban the online sale of fake service dog vests. Click here to view the petition.