FF12: Fake service dogs harm those with real medical needs

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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) If you saw Cookie walking through the park, your reaction would be like most others. The dog is tiny and has black, curly fur that's so long you can barely see her eyes. She looks like a stuffed animal come to life.

But Cookie's time at the park is for something much more important than to show off how cute she is. She's working with Kim Kutilek of Live Well Dog Training on becoming a dog that can detect anxiety and help with mobility - a service dog.

Most people though, Kutilek says, want service dogs just to skirt the rules.

"Honestly, it's about 75 percent. When it boils down to it, maybe one in four are people who actually legitimately need their service dog trained. The other 75 percent just want to be able to take their dogs to stores, to restaurants, etc.," Kutilek said.

The fake service dogs may not seem like an issue but they are.

"This has honestly been a fairly recent problem to be this popular," Kutilek said. "I'm not quite sure where the motivation for this has come from but it's become very popular probably in the past 18 months where it seems everyone wants to have a service dog, everyone."

"For us, these dogs are a medical device," Cory Tourville said. "People should look at it no different than my cane."

Tourville is a veteran who served in The Marine Corps for four years. Tourville served during the Cold War in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Standing next to Tourville at any moment is Dexter, who is Tourville's service dog. A service dog is no joke to Tourville who needs Dexter for much more than companionship.

"This strap right here is when we go upstairs, he's in front of me and I'll say pull and he just stiffens up and I can pull myself up by that," he said. "When I'm sitting down, I can tell him to brace and he'll just stand there and I can put weight on him to help me stand up. Dexter's just my boy. He's just always there."

"He never leaves me," Tourville continued. "Even when he's not in vest, he's always around. For my leg, I'm a fall risk with this leg and anything I drop, he will pick up. Except pennies, we don't let him pick up pennies because they're poisonous."

"Batman gets me out of the house," Erika Smith said about her service dog, Batman. "I would always just stay in the house, not go anywhere, hole up in my room."

Smith was in The Navy stationed with The Marines for 6 1/2 years. She said she was a doctor for the marines and has severe PTSD.

Being a large dog, halfway as tall as Smith while on all fours, Batman is good at blocking people from Smith when she gets anxious. Smith said he's great at keeping people at a distance when she deals with the aftermath of her time in the service.

But fake service dogs aren't trained like Dexter or Batman. When they go into stores or restaurants and misbehave, Tourville says business owners tend to assume his dog will too.

"That's one issue we have is people just assuming right off the bat they're not good dogs," Tourville said.

That skepticism carries over to actual questions. Tourville said strangers will directly ask him what Dexter does for him, likely to try to see if Dexter is a real service dog. Not only is that invasive, but Tourville said asking that question is the same thing as asking a stranger's medical history.

"That's just a big issue is the assumption of, what is wrong with you? Why do you need a service dog? And some people are very adamant about wanting to know and will not let it go until you give them an answer and a lot of times, sorry, it's none of your business."

Unlike the support on Tourville's leg, Smith's medical issue isn't visible. That increases the questions.

"I've had a lot of people, they say what is he? Oh, he's a service dog? What does he do for you? Well, he helps me get out, maybe I say medical alert. Well what kind of medical thing does he do? And I just freeze. I don't know what to say," Smith explained.

Tourville said it's a problem because representing a dog as a service dog isn't too difficult.

"You can go online and buy a vest," he said.

He's right about that. For less than $30.00 from a reputable pet supply website, we bought a service dog vest and had it shipped to Eyewitness News, no questions asked.

Kansas law says if you have a service dog, you need an ID card that shows both the dog and handler and also has information about who trained the dog.

That trainer, though, could be anyone. There's no test to prove it and because of laws under the American Disabilities Act, nobody can check.

"It should be very hard, what I do," said Midwest Battle Buddies Executive Director Chip Neumann. "I have asked our lawmakers to make it very hard for me to certify an animal. It should be very hard."

Midwest Battle Buddies is a non-profit organization that matches veterans with service dogs and helps train them. Midwest Battle Buddies' name and phone number is on all ID tags for the veterans the organization serves.

But Neumann wants more. He said he's talked with others across the country about tightening laws, but said doing so is a long shot.

"I have had extensive talks with our politicians, lawmakers around here about this and to change issue would be going against the ADA and the Department of Justice is who enforces this," he said.

Neumann said doing that would be a very long and difficult process. He said he's working with other organizations across the country to try to work with airlines as well as the TSA to come up with some sort of standard of training and certification. That way, those trained and certified would have an easier time at airports.

"I just wish we could tighten this up and I think to start with the TSA would be a real good place to do it," Neumann said.

In the meantime, education seems to be the solution.

Kutilek said, "When you take your dog in somewhere that's not trained to be a service dog and you represent it as a service dog, you make it more difficult on the people that legitimately need their dog."

Kutilek says it's as simple as that. Identifying your dog as a service dog when he or she isn't can hurt years of training for those like Cookie. That's not to mention the years of growth and progress for the person who relies on her.