KOLD INVESTIGATION: Is that really a service dog?

Updated: Feb. 22, 2017 at 10:21 PM MST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Take that lovable mutt you rescued from the pound and with a quick online search, a few clicks and about $60, he can become a certified service animal.

You'll still need to secure a red vest but the ID cards and a certificate you got for filling out the forms will open doors and he'll be able to go just about anywhere you can.

KOLD INVESTIGATION: What's the difference between a service dog and emotional support animal?

In the end, registering as a service dog works on the honor system. While there are many regulations protecting service dogs, there isn't much regulation of the training and certification of the animals.

Few business owners would risk the embarrassment of even questioning whether a dog is truly providing a service. Especially one wearing a service dog vest that most trainers recommend.

"(Business owners) are very reluctant to ask questions because they don't want to appear in the next news story," said Debbie Lange, a dog trainer from North Carolina.

North Carolina attorney Mike Hunter said some people take advantage of the lack of regulation.

"Unfortunately there are dishonest people out there who will bend the rules," Hunter said. "It causes a lot of problems for places that are open to the public."

Problems arise because no proof is required a dog is truly a service dog. Your mutt's new certificate and vest, while official looking, are completely unnecessary under federal law.

"You cannot ask anything about the nature, or the extent of the (dog owner's) disability," Hunter said. "You cannot require a doctor's note or any kind of training certificate for the animal."

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For privacy reasons, the law states a business owner can only ask two questions -- Is it a service dog and what service does it provide?

Lange is the owner of 'The Dog Knowledge.' Her business trains everyday pets while her non-profit trains service dogs.

"There is nothing as rewarding as when you see the look on somebody's face when they have a dog that will help them," Lange said.

Lange said her dogs help everyone from veterans returning from war to children overcoming disabilities.

The demand for service dogs is booming and it's creating another major problem, animals being sold as service dogs that aren't properly trained.

Lange said it is happening because the service dog industry is completely unregulated.  The ADA does not require anyone to use a professional service to train their dog.

"I'd have to have a license to cut your hair, give you a manicure, but I don't have to have a license to train your dog," Lange said. "(With) no background you could say I'm a service dog trainer."

Lange's dogs open doors, pick things up, brace people after a fall and much more. It takes several hundreds of hours of specialized training. She says too many supposed trainers are claiming they can turn any dog into a service animal.

"That is nonsense," she said. "It would be the same analogy of a place saying I only raise Kentucky Derby winning horses. It's that very, very special dog that has what it takes, to have the environmental fortitude to be able to walk out in a crowd, to be able to have cameras in their face, to be able to hear a crash and not react."

That's exactly the type of special dog Courtney Thorpe has

"This is Aquata," Thorpe said. "She is my service dog."

The 17-year-old Thorpe said she's battled depression, panic attacks and seizures and they often work in a sort of chain reaction.

"Every time I go into a panic attack, we call her over and she helps me," Thorpe said. "A lot of times it will even keep me from going into a seizure."

The training for dogs like Aquata is expensive, which means mistakes can be very costly.

Courtney Thorpe and her service dog Aquata. (Source: WBTV)

"(We're out) probably over $20,000," said John Fortin.

Fortin and his wife Zoe said they spent that much money on Achilles, a 2-year-old retriever with a lot of puppy still in him.

The Fortins bought the dog to help their son Ronald, who was headed off to college in Florida. Ronald has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

"It was going to be his safety at school," Zoe said.

The Fortins said they did their homework and due diligence. They found a trainer who flew to Michigan to bring home just the right dog.

"We had our suspicions about halfway, three-quarters of the way through the process," John said.

Achilles wasn't learning the jobs needed to help Ronald.

They tried taking him to other trainers, but it was too late, he was past the point where he could learn the skills.

Making matters worse, Achilles wasn't even healthy. He has hip dysplasia, a disorder that a trainer should have spotted early on.

Ronald became fully attached to Achilles, who turned out to be a very loving and expensive family pet. Achilles just isn't the service dog the Fotins paid for.

"I will never forget the day we sat down with Ronald and told him the dog was not going (to college)," John said. "He was in tears immediately."

The Fortins working to get the attention of lawmakers in Washington.

"There are stories throughout the nation of people who have had this happen to them," John said. "Something has to be done."

John and Zoe Fortin said they spent $20,000 for a service dog for the son who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. (Source: WBTV)

Lange and other reputable trainers want regulations that would require service dogs to be trained to an agreed upon obedience standard.

They would like an impartial board set up to show the dogs have the skill sets to provide a legitimate service to cut the chances of people being ripped off.

"There are people so desperate, especially parents," Lange said. "They would pay anything if they believed that a dog was the answer that would change their child's life."

Many think it would be difficult for states to do much as far as regulations go, as service dogs are covered under the federal law the ADA.

Lange and the Fortins said they will continue to push the issue to bring some regulations to an industry mostly void of any. Until then, it is up to consumers to be extra careful to make sure they are truly getting a service dog.

Is That a Real Service Dog? Developed by Orvis.

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