Bruce Maiman: Frustrations of service dog fraud

Is it really that hard to do the right thing?

Despite the worst drought in a generation, too many Californians seem unwilling to save water, as The Sacramento Bee reported last week, but it’s just typical of how selfish we human beings are, or have become.

Today’s example: service dog fraud. People posing their pets as service dogs so they can take Fido with them everywhere animals don’t normally go, from restaurants to jetliners. It’s the four-legged equivalent of the disability placard when someone pulls into that spot and gets out of the car in a tracksuit.

Where food is sold or served, California law allows only service animals. Allergies and potential for disease are the reasons. But while barely 1 percent of persons with disabilities are partnered with service dogs, it’s common to see people using service vests on dogs that aren’t service animals.

That frustrates people like Linda Sekahy of Rocklin, who is severely hearing impaired. She relies on Trapper, a 4-year-old golden retriever trained by Canine Companions for Independence of Santa Rosa, to perform critical tasks, to not socialize with other dogs.

“Service animals are trained to be submissive,” Sekahy told me. “They simply don’t fight back against dogs that are frisky, aggressive or confrontational. I can’t risk having my dog attacked.”

“We’ve had a lot of cases where service dogs are victims of dog attacks,” explained Brian Skewis, spokesman for California Guide Dogs for the Blind. “Aside from the fact a blind person can’t necessarily protect the guide dog because they can’t see what’s happening, if their service dog is incapacitated, that person has lost their eyes.”

Service dog training takes roughly two years, and only three such schools are recognized by the state. Yet, as a quick Web search illustrates, it’s easy to obtain official-looking vests and fake documentation for your dog, no questions asked. People get perks by taking advantage of the disadvantaged.

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects those perks, namely, access rights, but it restricts business owners to asking only two questions when someone with an animal walks in: “Is this a service animal?” “What is it trained to do?” Any inquiry beyond that is a violation of the ADA.

“That’s to protect you from having somebody say ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” Skewis said.

But that protection is also a loophole. Canine cheaters know if they answer those two questions correctly, they’ll get away with complete pet access because businesses can’t demand further proof.

That can impel a business to make a blanket policy, “no dogs, period,” a common occurrence, according to Skewis.

However, that business policy “exposes them to direct liability under the ADA,” as well as “a whole area of litigation fraught with problems and abuse,” said attorney Stuart K. Tubis, whose San Francisco firm, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, provides businesses with advice and counsel on ADA matters.

The business owner’s dilemma:

•  Let all dogs with vests in and face potential litigation from the disabled party if a fake service dog attacks their dog.

• Keep all dogs out and risk heavy fines from ADA violations, plus potential lawsuits from people legally allowed to enter with their service animal.

Meanwhile, businesses are handcuffed by a law working at cross-purposes with itself. It mandates certain requirements yet limits the number of questions you can ask to determine if those requirements are being met.

Service dog fraud is a misdemeanor crime in California, punishable by six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, or both. But enforcement is difficult, and unlike those with disability placards, the law doesn’t require people with service dogs to register their animals. An additional problem: People calling their pets therapy dogs, comfort dogs and emotional distress dogs, none of which the law considers a service animal.

Canine Companions for Independence and others have been pressing the U.S. Department of Justice and California lawmakers to crack down on service dog fraud and create a standard that at least reduces the abuse.

There’s a larger point here. When we complain about too many laws and too much government, we forget how much of that is our own doing because some of us are not very good at behaving ourselves. As The Bee noted on our poor water conservation efforts, where actual threats of fines were in place, people cut back. Where no enforcement existed, water usage actually increased.

Businesses and the disabled already have enough challenges without people who are ethically challenged. Yeah, water’s a bigger deal than service dogs, but that should make it even easier to do what’s right, shouldn’t it?

Probably not. After meeting with Sekahy, I stopped at the grocery store where a person with a disability license plate pulled into the disabled spot. Guess what she was wearing.