Call it a real dog and puppy show.
South Florida's pooch-loving pet owners are going above and beyond the ‘collar’ of duty to keep their fury friends comfy, content and constantly nearby.
But is this canine love-fest causing some to break the law, and get away with it?
"Basically I'm legally blind," explains 80-year-old Ken Miles. Several years ago he hooked up with 4 ½-year-old Marty.
"When you look at him [Marty], that's my husband's eyes you're looking at," explains his wife, Joanne.
Marty is a service dog.
"He gives me mobility," explains Ken.
Protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Marty is Ken's professionally trained, working, four-legged sidekick.
"He can go on planes, trains, shopping centers and restaurants. He’s the real thing," said Ken.
The problem many others are not despite owner claims they are.
During a recent visit to the Palm Beach International Airport, the Contact 5 Investigators met Sonia and her small pooch, Honeybun.
According to paperwork signed by a New York doctor, Honeybun is a service dog.
The Contact 5 Investigators asked Sonia how Honeybun helps her.
“I look at her and I feel happy," she told us.
But while we were getting video of Sonia and Honeybun, it appeared Honeybun was more interested in other dogs then tending to her 94-year-old handler. After barking repeatedly at other dogs walking by, Honeybun eventually escaped from her handler’s arms and started chasing after another dog. Sonia’s aide and an airport custodian had to run after Honeybun to bring her back to her elderly owner.
When asked if the dog was a trained service dog, the answer was no.
Regardless, suspicious airline agents are often left to fly with passenger claims that their pets are service animals. Service animals fly for free. Pet owners wishing to bring non-service animals on planes must pay a fee, upwards of $165 per way.
“We can't pass judgement,” one United Airlines agent told us. The agent asked us not to identify her by name.
“We have to accept that they're service animals,” she said.
Last July, Florida joined more than a dozen states that have made the misrepresentation of a service animal illegal.
The Contact 5 Investigators wanted to know how many people in the sunshine state have been charged with violating this new law.
"None," said Nick Kutsukos, a service dog trainer and owner of Elite K-9 Academy.
Kutsukos is spot on. Not one person has been charged with violating this new law.
"They passed the law and no one is there to enforce it. It’s just a law that was passed to make everyone happy. I don't know it's just crazy," he told the Contact 5 Investigators.
Perhaps even crazier, just how easy it is to buy your way to a service dog.
"It's so easy,” explains Kutsukos. “I just need to put you on a computer.”
“Does my dog even have to be real,” asked Contact 5 Investigator Katie LaGrone.
“No,” said Kutsukos.
With just a few clicks on the computer, a credit card and the doggedness of a reporter trying to make a point, the Contact 5 Investigators purchased a service dog vest and ID badge for a stuffed animal, many of us recognize as Pluto. Our total cost, approximately $170.
"It's a joke, an absolute joke," explains Kutsukos. Dozens of websites online offer certification and accessories for so-called service animals with little to no checks in place.
"You can get it for a squirrel, it's ridiculous," said Joanne Miles.
For the last few years, Joanne and Ken have taken it upon themselves to expose the phony faces of service dogs.
"I think it's repulsive. They're doing it for their own benefit," said Ken when asked what he thought about pet owners misrepresenting pets as service animals.
The Miles’ have even taken on neighbors trying to bypass their condo association's no pet policy. One former resident filed a lawsuit against the condo association for not approving her so-called service animal. The former resident did not have the proper paperwork to prove the dog was a service animal. In the end, the condo association won.
From the Miles’ point of view, the problem and solution is crystal clear.
"There's no teeth in the law. The only teeth you have are your own and you have to raise your point and get your point across,” explained Joanne. “What they’re doing is wrong and it's a hazard to disabled people,” she said.
Florida lawmaker Jimmy Smith (R-Inverness,) who championed the law told the Contact 5 Investigators the purpose of the law was not to have people arrested or put in jail but to discourage pet owners from misrepresenting service animals.
Among the reasons for the difficulty in cracking down on phony service pets is federal health (HIPPA) and disability laws (ADA). People are limited to what they can ask service animal owners about their disability.
Legally, you can only ask: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. As a result, many establishments like restaurants, stores and airlines don’t bother to ask questions out of fear of lawsuits.
Misrepresenting a service animal in Florida is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and community service.
Signs of a phony service dog:
- Dogs who bark constantly
- Dogs that can't sit still or are easily distracted
- Dogs that relieve themselves in inappropriate places like restaurants, stores or at the airport