You may have seen service dogs at malls, restaurants or movie theaters, and had your doubts. By law, they can accompany owners with disabilities in public places where pets are not normally permitted, but some New Jersey residents continue to abuse the situation by buying phony vests, tags and ID cards so they can take their pets wherever they go.

David De Lossy, ThinkStock
David De Lossy, ThinkStock

Numerous websites now offer fake "service dog" and "emotional support dog" documentation, sometimes starting as low as $79.

"I don’t think people understand that they can do a lot of damage to people who actually do utilize service dogs and do need to take them in places of public accommodation," said Susan Greenbaum, executive director of the Lebanon nonprofit Dogs in Service, which trains a limited number of assistance dogs -- primarily mobility dogs -- each year.

Greenbaum said if a dog has not been properly trained to assist someone with their disability, the animal may wind up barking and jumping around, which can cause a problem in a store or restaurant. She said the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that for a dog to be considered a bona fide service dog, it must be individually trained to mitigate a person’s disability. Those tasks can vary widely.

"A person who has a seizure, the dog turns the person on their side and alerts emergency personnel," Greenbaum said. "It can be a dog with someone in a wheelchair that picks things up and hands them to them and opens doors, or a service dog might also alert someone with a hearing disability that the smoke detector is going off or their baby is crying."

Meanwhile, comfort or emotional support dogs are not required to have any special training at all, though Greenbaum said they do help people calm down.

"Let’s say you’re afraid of flying and having your dog with you makes you feel better, or if someone is afraid of going out of doors, they may feel better with a large dog by their side," she said, "but these emotional support dogs require no special training and they are not service dogs."

She also said real service dogs are not required to wear ID vests, so even if you see a dog in a store without one, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a fake.

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