CLEVELAND -- The signs are everywhere: No dogs allowed except for service dogs.
That exception is the law under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But, recently, stories of people passing off their personal pets as service dogs have been reported.
We found out it is happening, but just how much and how often isn't clear. That's because the law is easy to break, and sadly dog "cheats" do.
You can't spot a service dog by vest or identification tag. Neither is required by law.
In fact, anyone can buy one online for a fee and no proof of certification is required.
So how can you tell the difference between a service dog and a fake?
It's the dog that becomes "invisible" when inside a business, restaurant or other establishment. They follow the commands of their owner, then lie quietly beneath a wheelchair or chair when not at work.
We were shown a video of two guide dogs in training inside a store that doesn't allow pets but by law welcomes service dogs.
At one point the two dogs are approached by a third larger dog on a retractable leash. The larger dog's unruly behavior makes it clear he is not a service dog, even though his owner has passed him off as one in order to enter the store. So what is the harm?
There is plenty, according to people with disabilities who fear for the safety of their highly trained helpers, and worry about potential backlash.
Business owners are worried too about health violations and damage caused by imposters.
"You denigrate the entire opportunity for people who truly need service animals," says Wendy Crann, executive director of WAGS for Kids.
WAGS stands for Working Animals Giving Service, and it's the only Ohio organization that exclusively places service dogs with children up to the age of 18.
"People don't take into consideration how long and how hard the fight was to have access for appropriately trained service animals. It wasn't an overnight thing," says Wendy.
Crann is aware of websites selling vests, identification tags and so-called proof of training to anyone.
To this she says, "Coats and IDs don't make service dogs. Training to a certainty of behavior -- that makes a service dog."
What she does find troubling are sites that offer "disability assessment tests."
Channel 3's Monica Robins took the website's test to see if she would qualify for a service dog.
After three easy questions the test determined Monica did indeed qualify for a service dog, based on a previous leg injury that has long since healed. She is not pursuing the suggestion.
"It's a confirmation of a question of a disability that is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act," says Crann. "At WAGS for Kids we don't place dogs with kids that don't have a doctor's confirmation of a disability. That's step one. The second thing is training. Service animals are trained to what we call a certainty of behavior that they will do what you tell them to do when you tell them to do it. This is not about a well behaved dog that will lie at your feet. This is a feature of service work that is trained to a certainty of behavior."
Training can take up to two years, and costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Community fundraising and donations are often used to help people afford the cost.
The law does allow for individuals to train their own dogs to be service dogs, but trainers say in order for that to work, they must also be matched with the appropriate dog.
It is a federal crime to use a "fake" service dog, but as we found enforcement is tough because of privacy laws built in to protect persons with disabilities.
Under the Americans With Disabilities Amendment Act of 2008, a business cannot require a person with a service animal to dislose what disability they have, provide proof of certification for the service dog or give a demonstration of the dog's ability.
A business owner can ask two questions:
- Is this your service dog?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
However, if the dog misbehaves, barks, jumps or soils the premises, the owner can ask for the dog to be removed. They must welcome the handler to return to the store but without the dog.