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Fake service dogs are becoming more common

Photo: Kathryn Daniel

Do you know the differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA)? Could you tell them apart if you came across one in public, and which one is allowed where? It's a topic Mary Owens has to address often.

Owens is a seasoned service dog trainer. She's been training dogs for more than four decades. She's the head of Service Dog University, a Pensacola nonprofit organization. Owens' job is harder these days due to another kind of "helping animal," emotional support animals.

Owens said, "The emotional support animal system right now is so widely abused."

Emotional support animals are companion animals that give comfort to people with mental or emotional conditions. To get one you need a diagnosis and recommendation from a mental health professional.

That recommendation allows people to live with their ESA in almost any kind of housing, even if there are pet restrictions in place. They can also fly with them without having to pay extra fees.

ESAs aren't allowed in places regular household pets aren't welcome.

Owens said, "I think emotional support animals are very valuable in their capacity."

Owens explained she often sees ESAs in grocery stores and on top of tables in restaurants. That trend worries and alarms her for health and safety reasons.

Stacey is a veteran with severe post traumatic stress disorder. Adler is her service dog in training.

"He's my freedom. My second chance," Stacey said with a smile.

Owens has trained Adler to do the "pressure pose" when he senses that Stacey's about to have a panic attack or during one. That's what a service animal does.

They perform specific tasks to help their partner with challenges related to their special need. Adler's work has allowed Stacey to reduce her anxiety medicine by 75 percent over the last year.

"He let's me be a human being again," continued Stacey. Unlike service animals, ESAs require no training.

Legally, only dogs and miniature horses are allowed to be service animals, but Owens said she has seen all kinds of species presented as one, including a skunk. She said people often try to pass off their family pet as a working dog.

Owens said owners buy an official-looking vest online, put it on a plain old pet and insist on taking their animal everywhere.

Kim Gebhard owns The Blue Poodle pet salon. She's had many customers buy doggie life jackets and tell her that's exactly what they're going to do.

She expanded, "You can buy the Velcro that says 'Service Dog' and put right there."

Gebhard pulls up dozens of internet sites selling emotional support animal kits, complete with a letter from a licensed counselor.

"You don't even have to prove that you have any problems," she said.

Gebhard has two letters from local doctors citing her need for Scooby, her ESA. She struggles with panic attacks brought on by a years long struggle with Lyme Disease. Gebhard does not take Scooby to non-pet friendly places, but said she sees plenty of people who do.

"They take them everywhere and then they argue with everybody about it, argue, argue, argue," she said.

Gebhard wants more rules put on ESAs, requiring them to be tested for aggression, especially before flying. Both women have had business owners tell them that they're reluctant to question anyone with a vested animals about anything for fear of lawsuits or bad publicity.

"It makes me very angry. Angry. They're abusing the system and there is no system. That's the problem," said Gebhard.

Owens advises business owners that they have the right to ask even fully trained service animals to leave if they're misbehaving.

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