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Impostor Service Dogs On The Rise In San Diego

American Staffordshire Terrier Merlin wears a "Service Dog in Training" vest that his owner Nancy Retter bought online.
Nicholas McVicker
American Staffordshire Terrier Merlin wears a "Service Dog in Training" vest that his owner Nancy Retter bought online.

Some San Diegans claim their dogs are service animals, but others find business welcome all pets

Impostor Service Dogs On The Rise In San Diego
Impostor Service Dogs On The Rise In San Diego
Impostor service dogs are becoming more common, even as San Diego dog owners find many local businesses welcome their canine companions.

Nancy Retter brings her dog Merlin everywhere—into stores, restaurants and to her job as a teacher at a small private school. She adopted the rambunctious puppy and is still working on basic training for him—he barks at and jumps up on strangers and doesn't always listen to her commands.


But Retter is also training Merlin to be her service dog. She says he'll help her with nerve damage that one day will make it hard for her to walk.

"I can put my weight on him," Retter said. "He'll help me with what's called momentum pull, which is I start to fall and I tell him to pull me faster, and that can help me keep from losing my balance."

Merlin isn't licensed as a service dog, but Retter bought him a vest on the Internet that says "Service Dog in Training."

To buy the vest, "there's no requirement that you prove that you have a service dog or not," Retter said.

"I bought it because people kept questioning me," she added. "But he is being trained as a service dog, that's why it says 'Service Dog in Training,' rather than 'Service Dog.'"


After Merlin is better trained, Retter said she'll apply for official service dog tags from San Diego County.

But she also doesn't need to.

People with disabilities use specially trained service dogs to help them with their daily lives, but federal laws also make it very easy for anyone to say their dog is a service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents businesses from demanding proof that a service dog is the real deal, or that the dog's owner really needs the dog's assistance.

The law states a business or other public accommodation can only ask two questions of someone who wants to bring a dog inside, said Harold Holmes, the deputy director for San Diego County's Department of Animal Services.

"If I walked in to your store or restaurant or business with my dog and my disability was not apparent to you, you can ask me whether my dog is a service dog, and if I tell you that it is, you can also ask me what task the dog is trained to perform to assist me to overcome my disability," Holmes said.

That means anyone can say their dog is a service dog, or buy the dog a service dog vest or tag, and businesses can't question it.

Disabilities can include anxiety disorders, but "there's a very grey area between emotional support that does not qualify and psychiatric service, which does qualify," Holmes said.

California's Fair Employment and Housing Act also prevents landlords and employers from banning service animals, Holmes said.

Airplanes also must allow service animals to ride with passengers under the Air Carrier Access Act. The law says that proving a dog is a service animal requires "identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of the qualified individual with a disability using the animal." Airlines also have individual policies on their websites.

Because the requirements for proving a dog is a service dog are loose, impostor service dogs are likely becoming more common, Holmes said.

The county has given out more than 3,000 service dog tags since 2009. The animal services department now gets so many service dog applications that it got stricter about its application process—asking people what the dog is trained to do instead of just whether they need the dog.

But many San Diego dog owners have found they don't need service dog tags—fake or real—to bring their canine companions into businesses.

Greyhound Lola goes everywhere with Hillcrest resident Stephanie Thompson.
Nicholas McVicker
Greyhound Lola goes everywhere with Hillcrest resident Stephanie Thompson.

Hillcrest resident Stephanie Thompson likes to bring her 8-year-old greyhound Lola with her wherever she goes, including into restaurants, coffee shops, even stores in the Fashion Valley Mall.

"More than anything, I just don't like leaving her outside by herself, because she has chewed through her leash before and I don't want to lose her," Thompson said.

Thompson said she rarely hears objections to Lola coming inside a business.

"She's quiet, calm, well behaved, clean, doesn't drool or bark or jump up, and sometimes people don't even notice her honestly, except that she's tall," she said.

Thompson demonstrated how easy it is to bring Lola with her by walking her inside a Jamba Juice in Hillcrest. The pair entered the store without any objection from the employees or other customers.

But Lola is quiet and pretty small. So I tried another test, this time with Daisy, an 85-pound bulldog-boxer mix puppy.

Bulldog-boxer mix puppy Daisy plays with her tennis ball in her front yard.
Nicholas McVicker
Bulldog-boxer mix puppy Daisy plays with her tennis ball in her front yard.

Even though I could barely control Daisy when she tugged on her leash, I brought her inside a Starbucks in Clairemont. As I walked through the front door, I got startled looks from the other customers, but no objection from the barista.

When I approached the counter to order my drink, the barista welcomed Daisy, cooing, "who do you have down there?"

I couldn't stop Daisy from sniffing at the food on display or putting her nose on the counter, but still wasn't challenged.

I tried again at other nearby businesses, and again nothing happened. Daisy was welcomed, or at least ignored.

A spokeswoman for Starbucks says official company policy is that only service animals are allowed inside stores. Many other San Diego businesses and institutions, including city libraries, say no dogs are allowed, except service animals. That's because dogs may scare children, trigger allergies, or get out of control.

Holmes said people with impostor service dogs, or even just unruly pets, can create problems for people with actual disabilities.

"It's important that we all be good ambassadors and not create negative feelings towards our dogs by having them out of control," he said.

That also goes for Merlin, who still has a lot of training left to do.