Service dog or service mutt? Clerks see uptick in dogs registered to serve

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Leanne Nelson and her guide dog, Ozzie, shop at Bourque's Market on Sabattus Street in Lewiston on Friday. "There has been much more awareness in recent years, making it easier to go into stores with him," Nelson said.

LEWISTON — You may not think of a Chihuahua as a "service dog," but a review of city records show at least two of the breed along with pit bulls, pugs, Pekingese, Yorkshire terriers and a Dachshund receive free dog licenses because of the benefits they provide their disabled owners.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Leanne Nelson and her guide dog, Ozzie, shop at Bourque's Market on Sabattus Street in Lewiston on Friday. "There has been much more awareness in recent years, making it easier to go into stores with him," Nelson said.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

A sign on the front door at Marden's in Lewiston is about service dogs.

The number of dogs being verified by doctors and other health care professionals as either performing tasks for their owners or improving an owner's "health and well-being" are on the rise in Maine.

Records in Bangor, Portland and Lewiston show dramatic increases in the number of dog owners seeing their $7 to $11 license fees waived.

Bangor's service-dog population has more than doubled in three years, from 15 to 34, while Portland's has more than quadrupled, from 10 to 43. In Lewiston, the population is up sixfold, from 4 to 25.

Of the 25 dog owners getting license waivers in Lewiston, 13 get free licenses because their dogs "improve health and well-being of the individual by mitigating a disabling condition."

Eight dogs given waivers in Bangor fall into the same category.

The trend of more people being "prescribed" dogs may also be adding to the confusion around state and federal law that allows those with "service dogs" to take them into stores, restaurants, hotels, and even on planes.

Some who use highly trained dogs that perform specific tasks, such as guiding a blind person or sensing an epileptic seizure, are frustrated that some dog owners are simply dressing their dogs as service animals to take them wherever they go. Vests, backpacks and badges are readily available online.

"You can Google up anything," said Marie Gagnon, a service-dog trainer and kennel owner in Otisfield. She said she gets four or five calls per year from people looking for a way to get a "service animal" vest for a family pet, "'because, you know, we are taking a trip and and we want to take Fluffy on the plane with us.'"

The first thing she tells them is that the practice is illegal in Maine and against federal law as well.  She said many people don't realize a person is responsible for damages or injuries dogs cause in public spaces, whether or not they are service dogs.

"You are liable for that and people don't consider those things when they decide to pretend they have a service dog," Gagnon said.

Besides the online purchase of service-animal wear, some entities sell certification papers. But the certification is essentially meaningless under the law.

"It's not worth the paper it's written on," Gagnon said.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a federal crime to use a fake service animal. And about a fourth of all states have laws against service-animal misrepresentation. But privacy protections built into the laws make it nearly impossible to prosecute offenders.

There's also confusion over what is and is not a service dog and what a dog owner or handler has to disclose, under the law, to a shop owner or other person who challenges a dog's authenticity.

It's even more difficult because no papers are legally required for real service dogs. 

All a person can ask an individual with a service dog is, "Is that a service dog?" and, "What task does it do?" You can't ask the owner to have the dog perform its task or ask what a person's underlying disability is.

Gagnon suspects the problem of people faking service dogs is not as big in Maine as it may be in other parts of the U.S., but that may simply be because we also have fewer people than most places.

She said the family pet that is being registered as a service dog because it "makes you feel better when it's with you" is not a service dog as defined under state or federal law.

The waiver application form for the dog-license fee discloses that it's for licensing purposes only.

Because a doctor, nurse or social worker signed off on the pet doesn't give it carte blanche to travel everywhere with you. It also doesn't mean a dog that isn't getting its license fee waived is not a real service dog.

The application for a waiver allows the agency that trained or owns the dog to verify it performs specific jobs for its handler.

Only two of the dogs receiving waivers in Lewiston have been verified by training organizations. One dog is listed for performing mobility assistance and 10 are listed for performing tasks for their owners. One dog —a beagle — receives a license-fee waiver but is not listed in any of the categories of service.

Eric Dibner, Maine's coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act, said the rules for service dogs are complicated and often confusing, and the situation is made more confusing by the increase in the variety of breeds and types of service dogs out there.

Dibner said he didn't know whether there were more fakers out there but said there certainly is a public perception that there may be.

Based on his understanding, Dibner said, "If it ain't performing work, it doesn't get to go with you into a public place."

But a specific dog's work is not always clear, Dibner said. He said federal and state laws have enforcement mechanisms to protect the rights of people with disabilities and to protect their access to public places, but there's no process for challenging an "impostor" service dog.

Unlike the state's system for handicapped-parking placards, which a police officer can track back to the rightful bearer, there's no way to check a service dog's credibility. 

Dibner said he didn't think people faking service dogs in Maine is a widespread problem. 

"But I'm sure there are people who do that and always have," he said. He said the license fee waiver process at least adds "some tinge of legitimacy and a document trail."

Dibner and others said they did not know of any case in which a person had been fined for having an impostor service dog in Maine.

"I would like to see some legislation or rule developed that explains what course of action you should follow if you think someone else is an impostor," Dibner said. He said a firm "disincentive to misrepresent" your dog would help society right itself.

The solution would be a strict licensing process for service dogs, Dibner said. Some have even advocated that service dogs and their handlers be required to carry identification, but civil rights advocates argue that could undermine the intent of the ADA.

Nationally, efforts to make the federal law more prosecutable have begun, but few agree on what will work best, according to a recent report by The Associated Press.

Ideas range from ditching privacy to doing nothing.

Corey Hudson, chief executive officer of Canine Companions for Independence in San Rafael, Calif., and president of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of training schools, is leading the effort to get the U.S. Department of Justice involved. He began writing to the agency 18 months ago but has not received a response.

Hudson wants to open talks and explore ways to identify the real from the phony.

But the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners in Michigan worries that bringing in the Justice Department could set back access rights won by those with disabilities in the past 20 years.

"While we deplore those who might be so unethical as to impersonate a disabled person by dressing their dog up as a service animal, we equally deplore the frenzy of alarm being stirred up about the risk of such abuse," said Joan Froling, chairwoman of the association.

A standard ought to be in place, said Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants in Atlanta. "The sticky part is who will do the testing and what will be the criteria for allowing dogs to be considered assistance dogs."

An ID card might be the simplest answer, she said, adding that she didn't think the loss of privacy would be the big issue some think it would be.

There is a big difference in the behavior of real service dogs and impostors inside businesses, experts said. A true service dog becomes nearly invisible. Pets might bark, urinate, sniff, scratch and eat off the floor.

Doris Dennee, a Portland-based volunteer puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, said only about 50 percent of puppies — even those specifically bred to be guide dogs — can actually make it through the training and meet the standards allowing them to be handled in busy public places.

"It's an extremely high standard, and the most difficult of all the standards to meet is how the dog performs in public," Dennee said. It's a guide dog's decision-making ability that sets it apart.

Dennee said she recognizes the health benefits for humans interacting with dogs and she participates in a program at Maine Medical Center in Portland that brings dogs to visit with patients. "But those are not service dogs; those are dogs just visiting people," she said.

She wouldn't speculate on how prevalent fake service dogs are in Maine, but it's a hot topic for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which is working to improve enforcement of the federal law.

"There are people who game the system," Dennee said. "And it's kind of disturbing for people who legitimately have the need for a service dog."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Julia Gleason's picture

I agree with gravel on this one

There is a huge difference between people that get benefits from the state and people who need and deserve benefit from the state.
I have 2 wonderful dogs, that I love dearly, Do I want to take them everywhere I go? Absolutely not. Christ, they would have a field day at Blackie's farm stand, anyway, back on point...It is my opinion that people with service dogs, weather they are a farce or not, should only be allowed to go into public places if needed medically. My 2 dogs do me a service by helping me with my anxiety problems, but it doesnt mean they need to come with me to the movies, or to the grocery store. Also, it is my opinion that people that receive benefit such as food stamps or tanf need to be screened for drugs and I think that there should be guidelines in place on what kinds of foods and products can be purchased. There's always going to be people who cheat the system but if we had stricter guidelines and more specific rules in place it might help cut down on welfare fraud and there will be more for people who actually need it and the others will be forced to swallow their pride and get a job to pay for their bad habits.

Wendi Ward's picture

I agree with you on these

I agree with you on these points. I'm seriously sick of going to walmart, and seeing people bringing their animals into the store with them. I'm not talking the service dogs, but..the tiny yapping dogs, service dogs are trained..they don't bark randomly in a store...people also now bring in rats, cats, and one guy a bird on his shoulder. The bird kept flying around pooping then landing on his shoulder again. It's gross! Every animal is not a service animal. Service animals, get tons of training and are very expensive..they can cost as much as 10 thousand dollars. A therapy animal is not the same as a service animal. We had a therapy dog. I'm a nurse and I often took him to work with me, to help with my elderly patients. He would lay on beds of those who were too sick to get up, he would distract patients, who often wouldn't take their they would take their meds...ect...he received a lot of training. He never begged for food or bark. Then you have companion dogs...I.e. pets. Most of which are great in a home setting, however they don't belong in stores and such.
I very much agree that welfare recipients should get drug tested. Most people who have jobs get random drug testing. I'm not sure why it would be an issue for the people on the dole. I do however see a cost issue for the state, drug testing can be very expensive.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Thank you for having reason

Thank you for having reason and balance when it comes to your pets. The city I live in has a large senior population, and they convinced the city to allow "companion dogs" in any business establishment within city limits.

I finally got sick of having someone's family pet beg for table scraps with I'm trying to enjoy a meal in a restaurant. Not to mention the sanitation issues - get my drift. I refuse to spend money in business within the city limits.

Also, thank you for the same reason and balance when approaching welfare. We have all been around awhile, so I'm sure we all can see how the definition of "disabled" has morphed over time. There is big money in growing the ranks of the disabled.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I don't beleive it.....

I actually agree with something Gravel has to say, Yes people do abuse the system. I'm almost convinced it's a mental disorder. Who else would want to live as a disabled person.
I see it all the time, I've had to turn around and go home because I couldn't park close enough to the store. I had a woman one time confront me in the Wall Mart parking lot, she tried to nose into a handicapped spot with her pick up and her three small children. I refused to move as I was most of the way in already. I informed her that this was a handicapped spot, I had handicapped plates. She pulls out a blue placard and hangs it from her mirror, then proclaims that it belongs to her husband, which makes her legal to park here. Long story short, mommy and the kids went packing. This is what disabled people are up against, and it's getting worse..............

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Then disabled people have a

Then disabled people have a vested interest in keeping club membership to a minimum.

Allisa Milliard's picture

a hospital visitor tried to

a hospital visitor tried to claim a live chicken as a service animal at cmmc a few years ago. hospital policy is pretty clear on what does and does not constitute a service animal, but people have tried to claim snakes, chinchillas, and rats were service animals (none of which were on leashes or in cages).

MARK GRAVEL's picture

That is both hilarious and

That is both hilarious and pathetic at the same time.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

There are people who game any

There are people who game any system from services dogs do fake disabilities to receive SSDI.


I'm convinced you have it in

I'm convinced you have it in for anyone receiving assistance of any kind. Let's
hope you don't need it yourself someday.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

For example, if I ever eat

For example, if I ever eat myself into obesity, I would be to ashamed to ask my fellow taxpayers to buy me a motorized scooter to haul my ass round. Billions of tax dollars are spent each year on these non-life essential items. First, that is money spent America does not have; it is borrowed. Secondly, American could theoretically help more individuals with life threatening needs if that money was better spent.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

I have it in for those who

I have it in for those who are gaming the system. We all should!

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Being that I know many and have met them

thru my wife's job of assisting those that are actually blind, handicapped, and with real mental and physical disability, you should be careful and aware of how you label and bunch them as being liars and fakes.

Not all working dogs are service dogs in this field, and they perform sometimes simple duties for smaller animals as just for small mental diseases for comfort and companionship to help keep them focused and calm.

Just like we contribute to "Puppies Behind Bars" that are used for Veterans with PTSD etc. a very good cause and program....

There are several different kinds of service dogs, including guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility dogs, seizure alert/response dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and autism dogs. There are also other types of dogs with jobs that help people, including therapy dogs and emotional support animals.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

The law defines what

The law defines what constitutes a working dog. A dog that is not a working dog is a pet regardless of any emotional attachment one my have to it.

I live next to a very large senior community. The city allows "companion dogs" , just another name for a pet, to enter stores. Stores including grocery stores and restaurants. To make a long story short, there are lots of complains about pet behaviors in stores. I wrote a letter to the city along with others saying we pledge to shop and dine outside the city until they change the ordinance.

Only the federal government defines a working dog under authority of the ADA. No one less, not a city, and especially not Jerry.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture


You need a bone to gnaw on, look on down in the penal area....

My wife works for the Federal Gov.

Carol Durgin's picture

Service animals

I think this comment to Mark was uncalled for. And as for your wife working for the Federal Government, that is not such a big deal, except for the benefits she receives. The Government is so screwed up. You see how the postal department works, for one example. I have read your comments in the past. You lean to the very liberal side of the isle. People with real disabilities should receive the help they need. Impostors need an attitude adjustment and a fine, if it is warranted.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Then you know I'm telling the

Then you know I'm telling the truth.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Here is your problem

I did not state anything that wasn't true. I did not say I was making these qualifications as from my own observation, because I know more about this field since I have been around it for 20 years as my wife is so compassionate and dedicated for these types of people then you could ever conceive.

So again you make yourself out to sound like you are an expert in everything on this planet. You want to deny everybody anything that doesn't meet up to your personal expectations. They have a name for people like you but I cannot repeat it here....

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Likewise, you are a bleeding

Likewise, you are a bleeding heart liberal.

Nature creates balance. I am the yin to your yang.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

You are definitely from the Darkside

You are the cold blooded dark negative Bagger that hates everything and everybody that needs assistance or compassion.

Lets see how your Karma will serve you when your time comes for needing help from a situation you cannot control.
But thank you for pointing out that I am the Yang to your Yin...
For you may not know.....

Yin is negative, dark, and feminine, Yang positive, bright, and masculine.


That explains you to a T.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Somebody needs to push people

Somebody needs to push people to make those hard decisions - go broke as a country or cut spending. While you may think I'm cold based on your shortsightedness, I actually have the whole country's best interest in mind. It is people like me who will save this country from the bankruptcy. Your short-term compassion is creating a long term catastrophe that will hurt the very people that you are claiming to help.

I'm Teflon to all the name calling because I know I'm right in my assertion - a bankrupt country will inflect much pain on everyone, especially those on the bottom of the social economic latter.

Remember, America's poor are rich compared to other countries. Why else would hoards of people what to come here and work illegally.

Carol Durgin's picture

Service animals

Hi Mark,
I just read your reply to Jerry. I now and again, read the comments posted. I agree with you. I don't live in Maine but I guess there are the same problems all over the country. There are those that will try to beat the system. People who use other people's handicapped cards and others who want to see just how much they can get away with. Doctor's sign their signature very freely so people can get S.S disability and handicapped access. The guy then enjoys his days on the golf course. I've seen it happen. I don't know what the answer is, except rules and regulations have to be enforced. People have to become more honest and responsible. That will be the most difficult part. It will be hard to change their mindset. Our country is treading on the edge of a cliff. Our leaders are turning a blind eye to those things that have made our country great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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