Who can resist the face of a helpful dog? It's no wonder we want to take our pets with us everywhere we go.
And until now, most places have been off limits to most dogs. Golden retriever Calgary is an exception because he's a trained service dog. Dianne Peters is his trainer, and she takes him everywhere she goes as she prepares him to work with a person with a disability.
But more and more pet owners are doing what Dianne has been doing for 10 years. The big difference is they're faking — passing their pets off as service dogs.
"It waters everything down,” Diane says. “No one knows really what to believe."
Veronica and Brad Morris run an organization called Psychiatric Service Dog Partners. They're advocates for owners who train their own service dogs.
Owner-trainers typically spend many hours a week training their dogs. Veronica’s dogs help her manage the anxiety she sometimes feels in public.
"It's really offensive to me that people would be faking a disability,” Veronica says, “because to fake a service dog you have to fake a disability, and it's really upsetting to me that people would do that."
"It is a growing problem," says Pam Budke Bolton, executive director of CHAMP Assistance Dogs Inc.
For the first time, Pam thinks there should be some kind of regulation cracking down on imposters.
"When you go into a business, people look at you differently than they used to,” says Pam. "They just expected really good behavior from your dog. Now they kind of look at you and watch you as you walk through to make sure your dog is going to behave."
So what can businesses do when service dogs come through the front door? It turns out, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are only two questions they can ask.
"'Is this a service dog that is required for a disability?' And if the person says yes, you can ask them, 'What is your dog trained to do to help you?'" Pam says.
The Morris' say fake service dogs have not just made business owners leery about the presence of a service dog, but they've created a kind of backlash against people who really need them.
"It makes people so angry, because people think they're taking advantage, they think people are gaming the system,” says Brad Morris, who uses a wheelchair.
Missouri, California and Colorado have specific laws cracking down on the use of fake service dogs, or impersonating someone with a disability. Illinois does not, and there's no federal law.
So, at places like airports and on airplanes, there's really nothing stopping people from claiming their ordinary pet is a highly trained service dog.
CHAMP Assistance Dogs Inc. gives training seminars to employees who work at public places like the Missouri Botanical Garden and St. Louis Zoo, to educate employees on how to approach anyone who might show up with a dog.