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The Truth About Service Pets

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Have you noticed more and more people bringing their pets everywhere?

Dogs and cats. Turtles, rabbits and even ferrets.

They take them inside grocery stores and restaurants, stroll with them through the mall or ride alongside them on airplanes.

A lot of these people claim they need their pets as "Emotional Support Animals," but critics argue that in many cases these are just regular pets, not specially trained, and that they're endangering those with serious disabilities.

Joseph Chica, who is legally blind and works with a specially trained service dog named Gunner, was faced with a hard choice recently at the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.

"I figured it was going to be too many [dogs] to adequately work safely," he said. "So, I had to leave my dog at home."

He says it is happening more and more.

"I encounter a lot of dogs in the mall, in the beach area, downtown, in restaurants a lot, a lot of stores, shopping centers, grocery stores in classrooms on campus," said Chica, a student at the University of Miami majoring in music and economics.

It took two years to turn Gunner into the kind of working animal that can help Joseph get around town and stay safe.

"I got him when he was 2 years old," he explained. "He was trained the first two years before I could get him."

Chica describes it as an extensive and thorough process that he took part in thanks to the organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind that provides service guide dogs for free.

But as more people take their untrained pets into public places, Chica says, this means danger for him.

"It happens to me every day. I will be walking and someone walks past me with another dog," he said. "They'll just give their dog a longer leash to say hi to my dog and it puts me in another situation that now I have to control my dog and get away from your dog and that leads to me being disoriented and not know my landmarks or where my cues are."

Kendall veterinarian Dr. Ian Kupkee describes the problem as "parking in a disabled spot, when you aren't disabled."

Dr. Kupkee suspects the reason more animals are in public places is because people are taking advantage of the rules for an Emotional Support Animal, also known as an ESA.

"When you have a person who goes online and buys a fake service dog vest and puts it on the Dachshund and says, 'I have an Emotional Service Animal,' and says, 'Publix has to let me in,' you may think it's a victimless crime," Kupkee explained, "But in fact you may well make a person who has a difficulty getting through life as it is, have a harder time of it. So, it's not considerate."

Kupkee is working to make the public aware that ESA animals cannot go necessarily where trained service animals can go.

"ESA is simply a dog that someone who has difficulty getting through life can have as a friend, but the important thing is they are not trained to perform specific tasks and that's the key," he said. "An Emotional Support Animal has no rights to gain access to an area that is denied to pets. There are a couple of loopholes with the FAA that will allow people to claim they need to their ESA to accompany them on a plane. But at the end of the day, the service dog will always have more rights than an ESA. Service dogs get first priority legally."

In other cases, people have been known to simply go online, fill out a questionnaire, claim they have anxiety or anger issues, pay anywhere from $60 to $200 and they will receive a doctor's note affirming they need an ESA.

According to the American with Disabilities Act, businesses are allowed to ask if the animal is a service dog and how they assist their handlers. But a business can't ask for any kind of documents or proof and they cannot refuse service.

This is not to say there may be a legitimate need for some Emotional Support Animals.

On a recent day, Krupa Desai was making her way around Aventura Mall with her puppy she's training to be a psychiatric service dog.

"I get panic attacks so it helps having her there so she starts licking me," said Krupa.

But she does acknowledge people are abusing the system

"You can get that letter from anywhere. The whole online thing I think that's (expletive) – that should be monitored," Krupa said. "You should have to get it from a doctor that you actually have a relationship with as a patient."

Virginia A. Jacko, president and CEO of the Miami Lighthouse of the Blind, added, "There's a tremendous increase of people that want their pets to travel with them, go to the restaurant with them. So the way they get around it, they get on internet, they get fake ID or get a doctor to fill out a prescription. What they don't realize is that they can take away rights of the disabled if the animal is not representative of a well-trained service dog."

Jacko said right now there is no law requiring owners to have their Emotional Support Animals to be certified. But members of the disabled community hope that educating pet owners will encourage them to make smarter, compassionate decisions when it comes to their own animals.

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