Is that service dog really a service dog?

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Service dog Phoebe takes a break

My curiosity about service dogs began when a friend told me he’d bought a certification letter from a website so that his beloved dog could fly with him on the plane for free. (Love the friend, hate the ethics.)

He was tired of paying $150 extra for the pooch and he had discovered that all you need is a letter from a psychiatrist to say you must have your dog with you and the airline has to let you take him on, for free. (If you don’t have a letter, you can answer a few questions online and pay for one.)

Then, a new neighbor moved in to our pet-friendly apartment building. He had two tiny dogs, “This one is certified for anxiety,” he told me one morning. “This one I’m training so I don’t have to leave him at home.” What he didn’t say is that landlords have to allow service dogs into a building, even if dogs aren’t typically welcome, and they can’t charge pet rent.

Thus began my interest in the Modern Service Dog Conundrum.

The good news: Dogs (and other animals) are being deployed to help people with a wider range of medical concerns than ever before.

The confusing news: Not all of them have the rights of service dogs, like the highly trained dogs who aid the sight-impaired.

The bad (and not surprising) news: People are taking advantage of the system. They’re aided and abetted by a phalanx of confusing rules, pet-owners’ willingness to cheat the system and privacy laws that prohibit businesses from asking too many questions. In California, it’s a misdemeanor to fake a service dog, punishable with prison or a fine or both.

One group, Canine Companions for Independence, has an online petition they plan to take to Washington to see if the rules and regulations can get sorted out. LA resident Lauren Henderson is even making a documentary about her life with a service dog to try to show people what it means to need and love a service animal. I spoke with her and others about why there’s so much confusion in this story: