SALT LAKE CITY — Ever wonder if a service dog you see in a restaurant or store aisle should really be there?
By strapping a vest that says "service dog" to their dog, anyone can go into places with their pet where other dogs are banned. While federal law says you can't do that unless you have a recognized disability, it's an easy law to break. Some people even brag about breaking it.
Owners of real service dogs say this is causing serious problems for them and their animals.
Wherever Marianne Schmidt goes, her guide dog Nick goes too.
"When it's a crowded area he turns on. He can weave through people. It's comfortable. He's amazing when it's crowded," she said.
Schmidt said it took more than a year of training to get Nick to the point where he guided her through crowds, on escalators, through revolving doors, on TRAX trains and any public space. That's why she's very frustrated by people who pass off their pet dogs as service dogs.
"It devalues all Nick had to go through to be a guide dog," she said.
It appears to be a trend that's growing across the country.
In a YouTube video, an unidentified man actually brags about taking his pet dog on a bus and into a restaurant.
"I took Bubs out for a walk, a long walk. I didn't feel like taking him home so I came up with an idea," he said. "This service dog scam works pretty good."
Thousands of people are taking the deception farther. They're going online to buy service dog vests to strap onto their pet dogs and take them anywhere they want. EBay is full of vests or ID cards that say "Service Animal."
Cheaters can make life difficult for real service dogs and their owners.
"Dogs are supposed to open doors," Schmidt said. "When there are other dogs out there acting like they're well trained dogs, it closes doors. It doesn't make it better."
Ty Brown runs CommuniCanine, a group that trains service dogs to help people with disabilities like diabetes, autism, or PTSD. He said many people call him to ask for a certificate without the training.
"We get calls several times to legally skirt the law," he said. "Often they'll say, 'Oh, (I just want my animal) to come with me in public. We want to take him on planes, into restaurants,' things like that."
Brown said the problem is most real service dogs are nearly invisible, with impeccable manners on the job. But the fake ones are not so well-behaved. They might bark, urinate, get into stuff and bite.
"Every other day I see stories about these service dogs biting people in the public because they're not well trained," Brown said. "They're not well socialized."
The Americans with Disabilities Act states it's a federal crime to use a fake dog. But enforcement is tough because you don't have to show papers to prove your service dog is legit.
"They can't ask for identification. They can't ask for proof of disability," Brown said.
He said the fear of getting sued has made businesses and their employees reluctant to deal with suspected fake service dogs. However, businesses can ask the dog's handler two questions.
"They can legally ask you, 'Is this a service dog?' And if the answer is no, they ask them to leave. Number two, they can ask what this dog has been trained to do," Brown explained.
He believes if businesses would actually ask those two questions they could get rid of a lot of fake service dogs.
Meanwhile, Schmidt fears the fakes will damage the reputation of trained dogs so much, it will ultimately become harder for her and others with disabilities to go where they need to.
"If they don't need that for a disability then please let their pets be pets," she said.
Both Schmidt and Brown are not sure if more laws are the answer. But both believe more social pressure on people who pass off their pets as service animals would go a long way.