FORT MYERS, Fla. - Service dogs provide immense support to individuals who need them, but some who don't have a disability are taking advantage of the system for personal benefit.
Michael Pierce and his guide dog, Addy, are inseparable. After losing his vision, Pierce applied to get a service dog.
"We're a team," Pierce said. "We're with each other 24/7 and it's a very dependent relationship... she's my eyes and I take good care of her."
Pierce and Addy went through weeks of training together before becoming an official partnership.
Some dog owners, however, are cheating the system by strapping on a counterfeit service dog vest, easily found online, to be able to bring their dogs with them in places where pets are otherwise prohibited.
Ebay has thousands of listings for service dog vests, and Fox 4 discovered one website claiming for $20, you could get a service dog ID that will "speed up your process of getting through airport security and entering stores." The website claims you don't need to prove you have a disability, or provide any medical records, to get the ID.
After hearing about the fraudulant vests, Arlene Dickinson, Founder and Executive Director of Florida Dog Guides, tried purchasing one to see how easy it was to get one.
"I had it within a week, and it cost me $120," Dickinson said. "That makes me mad."
Dickinson said she has to turn away about half the applications she gets from individuals applying for a service dog or service dog training. Applicants must indicate their disability and reasons for needing a service dog, and she said many of them don't qualify because they don't have a disability and are trying to get a service dog for "the wrong reasons," she said.
The biggest reason she sees people trying to pass off a pet as a service dog is to get approval for the dog to live in an apartment or condo building where pets are prohibited, or to be able to fly with their dog without having to pay additional fees. But, she said, it poses a public health threat and threat to other animals.
"People using fake service dogs in public, you don't know whether they're carrying diseases," she said.
Pierce said it also discredits dogs, like Addy, who have gone through significant training to be an official service dog.
"What happens is, you have dogs out there doing things in public that they shouldn't be doing and misbehaving, and it gives the real service dogs, like Addy, a bad name," Pierce said.
Penalties for someone caught using a fake service dog are essentially nonexistent, according to Fort Myers Attorney Matthew Trail. It can also be difficult to "catch" someone using a fake service dog because of protections under the American Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal to ask someone for proof of a disability or proof that their service dog is legitimate.
"This law is totally built so you should just, even if you think someone is faking, you should just air on the side of trust in your fellow man," Trail said.
Trail said most business owners feel they are better off not questioning the legitimacy of someone's service dog, fearing a lawsuit. He said the best way to tell if a service dog has been trained is by their behavior, because service dogs will not bark or act out.
The issue of counterfeit service dogs has become so widespread that an online petition, started by Canines for Independence, urges the US Department of Justice to enforce stricter penalties for people using fake service dogs, and crack down on online retailers selling the vests.
The petition can be found HERE.