Fake service dogs: 'One of the most hideous things I've ever seen'

Published: Jul. 26, 2018 at 6:03 PM EDT
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The founder of a service dog program believes there needs to be testing or vetting of service dog agencies. Right now, too many people are getting away with using service dog vests on dogs that aren't legitimate service dogs.

"It's one of the most hideous things I've ever seen. And I see it all the time," 4 Paws For Ability Founder Karen Shirk told WKYT via skype from the program's home base in Ohio. Shirk said people using service dog vests on dogs that aren't trained to be service dogs is disrespectful to everyone, and dangerous for real service dogs.

The trend is becoming common -- people putting service vests on their dogs that have little or no training so they can take them in stores, no questions asked.

"It's disrespectful to the business owner who has to, by-law, let service dogs in and they should be well-behaved, well-trained dogs," Shirk said.

It's easy to see why the service vests are abused. WKYT's investigations team was able to buy a service dog vest online for about $25 -- no training or certification required.

"I can't say why somebody else feels that you could just get a vest and put it on a dog. That's not what makes it a service dog," Patrick Branam said at a Lexington playground. He was there with his son Bryson, who suffers from autism.

After struggling with Bryson running away, the Branams decided to invest in a service dog for their son. After years of fundraising and saving the $17,000 needed to get a service dog from 4 Paws for Ability, the Branams brought Curtis, a golden retriever and poodle mix, home to protect Bryson.

"There have been two cases where he has undoubtedly saved Bryson's life because he ran away," Branam said.

Shirk said the training for her dogs starts at birth and lasts at least a year. Only 60 percent of the dogs that go through the program actually graduate to become service dogs. It's intense training, and not taken lightly.

"He's not a pet," Branam said of their service dog, Curtis. "He's a tool in the box to care for Bryson. He's a tool in the box that's saved Bryson's life and that's a relationship and a bond that you just can't recreate."

Curtis is trained specifically for Bryson. He can track only Bryson's scent.

"It's a sense of pride that we get when we put that vest on Curtis, and knowing that he's going to take care of our child to not only to keep him safe but to advocate that this is what this should look like."

Shirk explained that fake service dogs aren't just a disrespect to those that actually need service dogs, it can also harm the genuine service dogs. If a 'fake' service dog tries to attack a real service dog, it can cause post traumatic disorder in the service dog and force them into retirement.

"This is not a matter of 'are we not hurting anybody,' this is a matter of there are many ways they are hurting people," Shirk said.