LOS ANGELES -- They used to be called guide dogs, but they're correctly known as service animals. Dogs are not the only service animals, and service animals are not just for the blind. People with many different disabilities can use them. But there are abuses.
From the time they're puppies, service dogs are rigorously trained to help those who need them most. They can get into places where no pets are allowed.
The dogs are identified by the vest they wear. But since it's not illegal to buy these vets, it's easy for anyone to go online and obtain a vest for their animal.
Susan Lee Vick, director of Canine Companions for Independence, demonstrated how easy it is to obtain one. "There's a real faux official quality to this, you know?" she said, showing a photo of a tiny dog wearing a service vest. "This is Bambi; Bambi's new service dog vest!"
She said it never occurred to advocates for the disabled that the vests would be misused.
"There was never any vision of this outcome, this just sort of explosion of the 'have a vest, wear a vest, go anywhere you want with your pet,' no one saw that," Vick said.
Peter Morgan has a spinal disorder that makes it nearly impossible for him to bend. He teaches kids with special needs, with his service dog Echuka constantly at the ready. His disability isn't very obvious to strangers. Morgan says no one had ever doubted his need for a service dog -- until recently.
"The last two years, it's become very prevalent. The questioning, the looks. It's been a radical shift," he said.
And now he sees fake service dogs in places where pets aren't normally allowed. At a recent dinner out, Morgan said, there was another dog in the restaurant.
"Even to the casual observer you could tell it was not a service dog," Morgan said. "It had a vest. It was eating off the floor, licking people, lunging at people."
Then, Morgan said, the dog's owner pulled him aside.
"And he started saying, 'It's really neat that we can bring these dogs in here and get away with it because, you know, my dog's not a service dog and neither is yours.' And I just turned to him and I said, 'You have absolutely no idea what you're doing,' " Morgan said.
There's a growing call to penalize people who try to pass off their pets as service dogs. But few agree on how it should be enforced.
Advocates for the disabled say the problem may just be ignorance.
"They don't realize the harm that they are doing," Vick said of the impostors. "Bringing your pet dog out into a public place harms that person with a disability's right to live a free and independent life."
Morgan says he's been kicked out of restaurants when other dogs act up because people suspect his service dog is a fake.
"The people that are actually doing this should really take a long deep breath and think about how they're affecting less abled people than themselves," he said.
That, he said, would provide the most valuable service.