Fake service dogs a menace for legitimate owners, businesses alike

People who rely on service dogs to help them navigate through life are facing some unwanted competition — frauds who dress their pets up as working animals so they can take advantage of some of the special services available to people with disabilities.

Hotels, restaurants, shops across Ontario grappling with 'epidemic' of fraudulent service animals

Pet owners are turning to the internet to buy fake harnesses, vests and even documents so they can pass off their dogs as service animals. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

People who rely on service dogs to help them navigate through life are facing some unwanted competition — frauds who dress their pets up as working animals so they can take advantage of some of the special services available to people with disabilities.

Staff at hotels, restaurants and retail stores across Ontario say they've witnessed customers with animals — usually dogs — dressed in what they believe to be fake service animal harnesses or vests.

Unlike properly trained service animals, these dogs sometimes bark, jump at people and cause other disruptions.

It makes it more difficult for people who actually legitimately do need service animals.- Kyle Rawn, Accessibility Professionals of Ontario

"It's wrong," said Kyle Rawn of Accessibility Professionals of Ontario.

"It's almost becoming an epidemic across the province."

Rawn, who is blind and uses a service dog, said it's also making life more difficult for people like him who rely on the animals because now everyone with a service dog is under scrutiny.

"It's really unfortunate because it makes it more difficult for people who actually legitimately do need service animals," he said.

"I understand that people love their animals and they want their animals to be with them, but the law is the law. You shouldn't be passing off your animal as a service animal. It's fraud."

The Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) hired Rawn as a consultant after receiving dozens of calls over the past year from members concerned about the trend.

The ORHMA has started teaching hospitality industry staff in the province how to detect the scam and handle the situation in a non-discriminatory way.

Kyle Rawn of the Accessibility Professionals of Ontario explains how an increasing number of people are trying to pass off their pets as service dogs. 0:54

Black market

An example of a service dog vest available on Ebay. (Ebay)
There are agencies that train service dogs to help people with vision loss, autism, epilepsy, mental health issues and physical disabilities.

There's also a growing black market online where less scrupulous people can buy harnesses, vests and even identification cards to help pass off their pets as legitimate service animals, according to Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Some of the gear costs as little as $30, and is perfectly legal to purchase.

"There is … no law against misrepresentation," the charity said in a statement to CBC News.

This is one example of what a legitimate service dog harness looks like. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Unpleasant encounter

Ottawa resident Hugh Saunderson said fake service dogs are making his life more difficult and potentially dangerous.

Saunderson, who is legally blind and relies on his dog Niobe to guide him around the city safely, was at Billings Bridge Shopping Centre with his wife last year when they came across another dog.

We were concerned for our safety.- Hugh Saunderson

"All of a sudden a dog started barking and growling at our guide dog," Saunderson said.

"We were concerned about our safety ... wondering if the dog was going to attack."

He was told the other dog was wearing some kind of harness indicating it was a service dog, but the animal's behaviour suggested otherwise, Saunderson said.

Forced to leave the mall, Saunderson later followed up and was told there was nothing staff there could have done because they weren't trained to distinguish between real service dogs and fake ones.

"It's very uncomfortable," he said.

"If this happens more frequently you wonder if it is safe for you to go places with your dog."

Hugh Saunderson said run-ins with poorly trained animals masquerading as service dogs is making his life more difficult, and potentially dangerous. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

The dog that barked

Hotel staff are equally confused about what to do when they suspect someone has a fake service animal, according to ORHMA's Fatima Finnegan.

"I've heard from a couple dozen different hotels across Ontario that have identified they wanted some assistance on what do we do and how do we do it?" Finnegan said.

The association has come up with a set of guidelines for its members to help staff identify the scam.

"To know there are scammers taking something that's a lifeline for many for granted, it's hurtful and it's deceitful," she said.

Saunderson's dog Niobe was properly certified through the charity Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Rawn, the consultant on the training project, said the way people interact with their animals can be a giveaway.

For example, Rawn said his office got a call earlier this week from a Quality Suites in Cambridge, Ont., where a young man told staff he had a service dog to help him deal with anxiety, but left the animal alone in his hotel room. 

The dog barked incessantly, causing other guests to complain.

Hotel staff had no idea how to handle the situation.

Rawn did, and deemed the barking dog a fake.

"Telltale signs are if the animal is misbehaving, making noise," he said.

Businesses can demand proof

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, businesses don't have the right to ask customers about their disabilities.

But Rawn said they do have the right to ask for a letter from a medical practitioner saying they need a service animal, or a letter from the body that certified the dog.

Unfortunately, like the harnesses, those letters, can easily be faked.

"It's quite easy to fake documentation because it's so widely varied in who can issue it," Rawn said. 

Guide dog owners who are blind or partly blind may carry a government-issued ID card, but frauds rarely fake blindness.

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind is hoping an Ontario private member's bill that's been stalled could help.

Bill 80, known as the Ontario Service Dogs Act, dictates "no person shall falsely represent himself or herself as being a person with a disability for the purpose of claiming the benefit of this Act."

The bill had its first reading in December 2016, but hasn't yet been passed into law.

The office for the federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities said it's aware of the issue and the Canadian General Standards Board is developing a national set of standards for service dogs.