He’s a three pound Yorkie named “Chewie”. He’s adorable, he’s fun-loving, and of course, he’s loyal. What “Chewie” is not, is a ‘service dog’.
But we’ll come back to him. So what’s a service dog?
More than a companion, they’re specially trained for weeks or even months to help owners who have serious medical conditions.
They’re also trained to stay calm in social settings and wear a special vest signifying to businesses that they are a service dog.
That’s because per the American Disabilities Act they are allowed to accompany their owners nearly everywhere, including restaurants and other places.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team has found that the federal law governing service dogs and their training is so loose that it’s practically wide open to interpretation.
As a result, some say it’s hard to tell if those special vests really mean anything at all.
“It happened so fast and it was such a shock,” retired minister James Anderson told KHOU.
He had just been bitten by a 150 pound Great Dane that was wearing a service dog vest.
“I looked down at my arm and I could literally see muscle,” he said of the injury. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’”
Fortunately, it all happened in the waiting room of a doctor’s office where “Sparticus” was accompanying his owner.
“The service harness means you can trust the dog”, said Anderson. “It has the training. That’s what surprised me the most.”
In a court deposition, the owner claimed that the dog had been professionally trained, but she admitted she had no certification or documentation to prove it.
However, federal law doesn’t require certification, much less papers proving a dog has been trained.
But the owner did concede that “Sparticus” had bitten at least 4 times previously.
So what about the dog’s service vest and ID card? She said it came from the Internet.
Anderson’s attorney, who deposed the dog owner, says she told him she had to show very little to get the vest.
“Provide the dog’s vest size,” said attorney Will Adams.
KHOU: “That’s all she had to say?”
KHOU: “Was he needs an extra large?”
And again, because of that federal law, it was perfectly legal.
“It does piss me off,” said Sheri Soltes who is the founder of Service Dogs, Inc. located in Dripping Springs, Texas.
“If the dog misbehaves in public it reflects on the entire assistance dog industry,” Soltes explained.
But Soltes says the lack of federal regulation is causing another problem: Letting dog lovers use the service label like an all access pass for their pets.
“They want to take their dog into a hotel where they have a ‘no pets’ policy. They don’t want to pay the pet deposit at the apartment. They want to ride up front with them, they want to ride in the grocery cart,” she said.
Soltes says what enables the problem are some on-line businesses that provide service dog vests and cards.
She says some of them ask for big bucks, but not for proof about the dog’s training.
So, back to “Chewie” the three-pound Yorkie.
Chewie and his pal, ‘Misti,’ a producer here at KHOU 11 News, went to the web site known as “Free My Paws”.
In minutes, Misti designed and ordered an extra-small vest and ID card for which she paid $250.
Three days later, “Chewie” had a service dog vest.
So what does Free My Paws have to say?
The company declined and on-camera interview but sent us a written-statement, which in part says the following.
“Free My Paws is very clear in its communication to clients that we cannot and do not certify or register animals,” wrote the company. “Free My Paws manufactures products which are intended to be used by qualified individuals to clearly identify their trained animal.”
The business also stressed that “there is NO requirement for service, therapy or emotional support animal owners to identify their animal” and that it’s the owner’s choice to do so.
Free My Paws also said that while it supports increased regulation regarding service dog training/identification, it also points out that “there are countless disabled Americans who can’t afford to pay or wait for an animal and choose to train a dog to perform simple tasks which dramatically improve their quality of lives.”
Finally, the company says: “We further support the view that we would all benefit, if government clarified some of the rights of disabled Americans and most importantly the duties of the public and business in supporting these rights,” he wrote. “Presently many areas of the ADA are grey and leave a lot to interpretation.”
As far as the court case involving James Anderson, the trial is set for August so the dog owner’s attorney did not want to comment.
But, according to court documents, the owner claims that “Sparticus” bit James Anderson because he startled the dog by making a ‘sudden movement.’