Falsely claiming that your pet is a service dog might seem like a victimless crime, but it does real harm to people who need service dogs in their day-to-day lives.
CINCINNATI -- Despite her physical limitations, 6-year-old Blake Farrell is an independent girl.
Her service dog, Fiona, has a lot to do with that. The 4 Paws for Ability mobility assistance dog has been with the Indian Hill youngster for nearly a year. Together, the pair tackle the everyday challenges caused by Blake's spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement.
Like all service dogs, Fiona has undergone extensive training to meet Blake's unique needs. She's also a supportive friend.
What Fiona is not is a pet.
Unfortunately, the line between pet and service dog has been blurred in recent years because of the growing number of people who pass their pets off as service dogs so they can take them to places where pets aren't allowed.
As a WCPO Insider, you can find out how some pet owners are gaming the system and how emotional support animals differ from service dogs.
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Blake Farrell, 6, feeds some kibble to her service dog, Fiona.
Blake Farrell, 6, with her service dog, Fiona. (Contributed)
For those with disabilities who rely on task-trained service dogs, it's a growing problem -- and it can have dangerous consequences, according to Karen Shirk, executive director of 4 Paws for Ability, a Xenia, Ohio-based nonprofit that both trains and places service dogs with children and veterans internationally.
"I think the people who do it feel like it's a victimless crime, but it's not," said Shirk, who founded the service dog organization nearly 20 years ago. "It causes a lot of harm to service dogs and their handlers."
Blake's mother knows those potential dangers. She said she has to keep an eye out for "fake" service dogs when she and Blake are in public with Fiona.
"We've heard the stories about service dogs being attacked by pets labeled as service animals," said Kacey Farrell. "It's just really unfortunate because service dogs are highly, highly trained to do this job and after a trauma like that, some can no longer do it."
Cindy Reynolds of Amelia and her 17-year-old daughter Chloe have the same fear.
Chloe has a hearing impairment and epilepsy. Her service dog, Blaine, is trained to help her with the challenges of both, and the pair go everywhere together.
Reynolds said her daughter and Blaine have encountered an aggressive dog on more than one occasion in public places such as the mall, where pets are prohibited.
Because service dogs are not aggressive and focus their attention solely on their handlers, bad behavior -- like barking, growling or jumping up on passersby -- is a dead giveaway of an impostor, Reynolds noted.
"Chloe and I have had to learn what to do in these situations," she said. "It's really sad because it's a constant worry in the back of your mind, and you always have to be on guard."
That kind of bad behavior can also leave people with a negative view of service animals altogether, Reynolds said. And it leads some to question whether every service dog they encounter is legitimate.
Chloe faces scrutiny -- and even some rude comments at times -- when she takes Blaine in public, according to Reynolds.
"It's especially hard for Chloe because Blaine is a small dog," she explained. "He's a papillon and only weighs about 12 pounds. People think he couldn't possibly be a service dog because of his size."
The reality is that service dogs come in all sizes, according to Shirk.
You can't tell by simply looking at a dog that it's a trained service dog, and their handlers don't always have a disability that's visible. That makes it easy for pet owners to fake it.
Businesses that have cropped up online make it even easier: A quick internet search and about $50 will get you a complete service animal "kit," complete with a vest that identifies your pet as a service dog. Some companies will even throw in a bogus certificate and promise to add your pet to a national service dog registry, she said.
No such registry exists.
"It's becoming easier and easier to do," Shirk said. "Unfortunately we live in a society where people think it's OK to fake a disability, and there are businesses out there that will accommodate them."
People are also overstepping their bounds with emotional support animals, she said.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. And the tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.
Emotional support animals and therapy dogs are helpful but do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, Shirk said.
"Emotional support animals are not service animals. They can't go everywhere," she explained.
Emotional support animals are allowed on planes with their owners, and landlords must allow them in rental properties, she said. The law stops there.
The problem: Most people don't know the laws associated with service dogs or emotional support animals, according to Shirk.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "So much education is needed."
Reynolds and Farrell agree. Both say they would also like to see legislation that would crack down on those who misrepresent their pet as a service animal.
More than a dozen states have passed such laws in recent years. Ohio isn't one of them.
"People don't really understand until they're thrust into this world. Service dogs are such a necessary resource. They change people's lives, and they save lives," Farrell said. "We have been so lucky the ADA allows Blake to have Fiona with her at all times, even at school, and I think about how terrible it would be if that was taken away from her because people abuse it."
You can learn more about service animals and the specific provisions of the ADA online.