The unleashed dog lunged from the woman’s lap and right at Andy, Michaela Chase’s dog.

“It was going for blood,” Chase said, thinking back to the narrow waiting room at her physical therapy gym in Lincoln, Nebraska, the United States. “It was in full attack mode.”

Shielded by Chase’s wheelchair, Andy avoided the other dog, which had a tag on its collar that said “service dog”. But though there was no fight, the damage was done.

“It really ruined Andy,” Chase said of her service dog trained by Paws for Freedom Inc in Tonga-noxie, Kansas. Andy – the victim of a fake service dog, Chase said – now distrusts other dogs. He’ll even bark at other service dogs.

Fake service dogs are essentially untrained pets wearing vests or tags purchased online so Fido can tag along, too. They’ve become the bane of those who rely on trained service dogs to deal with disabilities.

Service dog owners take video of apparent impostors tugging at leashes in malls, grocery stores and other public venues. They record threatening fakes and describe attacks on their dogs.

Bloggers rail about fakes and fakers making people suspicious of real service dogs.

“When the fake service dog acts out like that, it hurts those that are legitimate,” said Sandy Bartkoski, co-CEO of KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc in Washington, Kansas.

Yet, trainers and advocates say there is no organised push to tighten legislative loopholes that leave fakes largely unchecked or to resolve contradictions in US federal laws that add to the confusion about what’s real and what’s not.The result is an honour system that allows fakers as much easy access as owners of real service dogs.

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Lewis working out at the hospital with his trainer Michael Pizzatl, while Bing takes a break.

Merchants say they’re largely powerless in the presence of a fake. If someone says their dog is a service dog, there’s little room to challenge them.

“The business owner is kind of at the mercy of the customer,” said Bill Teel, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association.

Many are willing to take advantage of the honour system that surrounds the use of service dogs.

Online sites sell “service dog” vests and tags, issue certificates denoting an animal as a service dog, and operate service dog registries – all designed to make any animal appear to be a service dog. Packages range from US$50 (M197) to US$250 (RM975).

All fake.

Imagery vs legitimacy

“These documents do not convey any rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Department of Justice does not recognise them as proof that the dog is a service animal,” states the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice in its answers to frequently asked questions about the act.

But there they are, and some sellers make little secret of the notion that they’re selling imagery rather than legitimacy.

USA Service Dog Registration, one of those online sites, offers advice for anyone wondering how to make a dog a service dog.

“If your service dog is not fully trained to help with a certain condition, we recommend buying the service dog gear,” the site says, just above a link to its online store with vests, certificates, tags, collars and more.

Professionally trained service dogs help people with impaired vision or hearing, seizures, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s and other conditions. Trainers may need years to turn puppies into focused animals able to handle any social or physical situation they encounter while performing specific tasks for owners.

Personality even comes into it. A guide dog needs to be assertive, ready to stop its owner from doing something that will put him in danger.

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Bing keeps watch as Lewis does his routine physical therapy at North Kansas City Hospital.

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Lewis is accompanied by his caregiver Meleana Still and service dog Bing after a routine physical therapy.

Josh Lewis, 40, has lived with the after-effects of a brain aneurysm for more than a decade. Six months ago, his life got a little easier: Bing came into it.

“I don’t go anywhere without him,” Lewis said of the sleepy-looking Labrador Retriever at his feet.

They’ve been to Minnesota and Hannibal, Missouri, ridden through Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, taken in more mundane sites such as the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Liberty, and made regular trips to his physical therapy at North Kansas City Hospital.

The dog works quietly and stays out of sight, perhaps under the table, when they’re out. Off duty, he’s a dog keen on tug-of-war, fetch and other playtime fun.

Bing helps Lewis walk, made difficult by paralysis on his right side. Lewis has been able to put away his cane, and he walks faster with Bing. A list of 19 short commands include “brace” to take Lewis’ weight if he needs help getting up, “step one” to go up or down one stair, and “tap it” to open electronic doors designed for easy access.

Lewis got his service dog free from KSDS Assistance Dogs. But training is expensive.

“Our dogs are around US$25,000 (RM98,422) when they leave,” Bartkoski said. “We’ve given somewhere around US$14.3mil (RM56.29mil) in dogs away.”

Other dogs don’t require the precise training that service dogs need.

Types of assistance dogs

Passive dogs are well suited to another role, that of therapy dogs that might work in facilities. They work at or visit schools, nursing homes and other sites that permit them, often providing calming and therapeutic time with individuals or groups. Facility dogs help the public generally but are not covered by public access rights that apply to service dogs.

Then there is a third category: emotional support animals. These may be dogs, cats or other animals that provide comfort by their presence and generally aren’t trained for that job. A federal aviation law recognises emotional support animals and protects their owners’ right to fly with the animals in the cabin, though the airline requires documentation as proof. An American Airlines spokesman said the carrier “has seen an increase in the number of passengers travelling with emotional support animals”.

Similarly, federal housing law acknowledges assistance animals to include emotional support animals.

KSDS Assistance Dogs is a non-profit programme that runs mostly on donations and grants. It has a two- to three-year waiting list.

The ADA says anyone can train their dog, or miniature horse, to perform a task that mitigates or helps them with their disability. Professional training is not required.

ADA also specifically prohibits cities, merchants and others from requiring proof that a dog is a service dog. It allows, in fact, only two questions: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Service dog owners may not be asked about the nature of their disability. They may not be required to provide documentation of the dog’s training. Nor may they be asked to demonstrate the work the dog is trained to do.

All this helps ensure that Americans who rely on service dogs have the same easy access as anyone who walks up to a salad bar, into a bowling alley, through grocery aisles, or onto an airplane.

Every few months, Tim Ryan sees the honour system surrounding service animals tested. Some-one will bring what seems to be a fake service dog into the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, where he is director of sales. And he’ll check, usually without success.

“When we ask these questions, and they answer to them, we’re at a road block,” he said. “That’s what I’ve found is probably the biggest difficulty for us. We can’t really ask much more than that.”

Often the public and even fakers don’t know the difference.

For example, one woman posted a video in which she confronts a man with a dog in a shopping cart. The dog’s vest says “service animal” but the man says the dog just makes people happy and that he bought the vest just to take the dog into stores.

“You know that’s illegal,” she says.

For Chase, who said her service dog, Andy, will never be the same, it’s not only illegal. It can be dangerous to go to public places with a fake service dog.

She got another service dog, Kaplan, in mid-2016. Chase said she still takes Andy on nearby errands now and then, keeping an eye out for other dogs.

“Otherwise, he gets depressed,” Chase said. “He needs to know he’s still working.” – Tribune News Service/The Kansas City Star/Mark Davis