Animals not qualified to be service dogs registered through newly uncovered loophole

Animals not qualified to be service dogs registered through newly uncovered loophole. (KDBC)

EL PASO, Texas (KDBC) - We are learning about something disturbing from dog trainers in El Paso. They say some people are abusing the service dog system just to get perks for their pets. Sometimes there are certain medical conditions that can be eased with the use of a pet, but we found out just how easy it is to cheat a system meant to help.

I'd like to introduce you to Walter, a stuffed dog. My 4-pound fluff ball arrived in the mail after only two days and 60 bucks.

A real dog, Kita, is an expertly trained dog who helps her human, C.J. Rodriguez, with tasks in and out of her home.

“She does a lot a lot of stuff. The basic one that is easiest to explain is brace and balance,” Rodriguez explained. “So, she helps me brace up if I fall off the ground, fall to the ground. She helps me get up. She helps me get out of chairs. That's also for a wheelchair assist. And then while I'm walking, she braces for me so I don't lose my footing and she helps me move forward."

There are two different types of dogs in this story: service dogs and emotional support animals.

Kita is a service dog. We’ve learned to go through the proper channels and get a pet certified as a service dog; it takes about a year and more than $1,000.

But by law, training for emotional support animals is not required. Emotional support animals can fly on planes with their owners for free, ride on public transportation, like buses, and live in places that normally don't allow dogs.

Rodriguez saw the importance of training her service dog the right way.

“They learn in service training to learn to be in confined spaces and to behave themselves,” Rodriguez said. “So, if you're in a small, crowded area, they know the rules and they respect it and they respect their space and what they're supposed to do and it helps them focus.”

It's the untrained dogs that trainer Charlie Moreno said he sees far too often. He thinks it's an accident waiting to happen.

“I think the biggest problem is ignorance,” Moreno said. “Some people may not have bad intentions, but they just think that because they love their animal that they want them to have that special title so that they can take them anywhere and really they don't realize that that type of situation can actually put a legitimate service dog at risk if their dog isn't properly trained and ends up being aggressive or distracting to a legitimate service dog, then that legitimate service dog's career [ends] early because it can cause behavioral problems that can take many years to actually subside.”

So, we have Kita, the well-trained service dog, and Walter, who is pretty well-behaved most of the time. What's the difference between the two? Not much.

This is where Walter's story begins. The day we received Walter, we hopped on Google and clicked on the first result: After only six minutes filling out a form, $100, a Walter photoshoot, and just a couple of days for shipping, Walter went from stuffed toy to my official emotional support animal. He has his vest, his registration certificate, and we even received cards to pass out to people who question our rights to have him in places of business. Walter now flies free and airlines have to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act.

“It's a matter of morals,” Moreno explained. “I think it's just a matter of each individual person knowing that what they're doing is wrong and it can affect other people with legitimate service dogs. So, it's one of those things where they have to have the ability to understand that it's not just something that's a right for every dog. It's a privilege. And a lot of these people that invest in their service dogs really need them. It's not just a novelty to slap a vest and a name tag on a dog and say it's a service dog.”

Allegiant Airlines said all it requires from passengers is a letter from a doctor or therapist, just like a prescription. It turns out that's really easy to get, too. On that same website, we took a 22-minute test and less than 24 hours later, a therapist called back for a phone session that lasted three minutes. They didn't ask anything about our dog; $150 and a day later, we had our therapist letter.

For another $100, we could have gotten Walter registered as a full-blown service dog with the click of a button.

Several airlines said they are seeing more and more dogs catching a free ride on planes.

“We are aware of it. Trust me. Every air carrier out there is aware of this scam. But as air carriers, our hands are tied. It is our responsibility to be compliant and not police. So, we are compliant to the regulations,” said Jana Leonard, ACAA/DOT compliance manager for Allegiant.

Allegiant said it banded together with other airlines to take their concerns to the U.S. Department of Transportation. They say the DOT is the only organization with the power to make some real change.

“It's ridiculous. And the government should be monitoring. Excuse me, but they are monitoring porn, they're monitoring illegal things. But this is illegal. They need to monitor this, too, and they're not,” Rodriguez said.

We agree. So, with Walter in tow, we went to find answers. Reporter Ashley Claster asked Rep. Beto O’Rourke for his thoughts.

"Congressman, this is Walter. With two hours and a couple hundred dollars, Walter is my emotional support animal. Clearly, we've uncovered a major flaw in this system. How did this happen?" Claster asked.

"I don't know. Your story concerns me that it would be that easy for someone to register their animal for emotional support and be able to fly on airlines with that animal when they may not need it,” O’Rourke said. “Certainly in the case of a stuffed animal, that proves the point. What I don't know is how widespread this problem is and to what degree there is fraud and abuse within the system. But I think your reporting and your effort highlights that there are not appropriate safeguards in the system right now and I want to make sure that those who really need an animal for emotional support, who have a disability, without that animal, they would not be able to perform in society, I want to make sure that we have a tighter system."

But he said regulation walks a fine line.

"I want to make sure that we have tight enough controls to protect against fraud or abuse,” O’Rourke said. “I want to make sure we also don't build up the bureaucracy and the red tape to such a degree that it makes it harder for those who have a legitimate need to quickly address that need and get the proper certification or approval. Striking that balance is going to be critically important."

He said it's a cause he's willing to fight for.

"I'm certainly happy to work with the members of the Transportation Committee and the House of Representatives to find that balance,” O’Rourke said. “And we'll certainly be sharing your report and your investigation with them because, like me, they might not have been aware of the problem before you and your stuffed dog showed up today.”

We called to ask about our ability to register a stuffed animal. The company is blaming employee oversight. The company said it is enforcing corrective actions for that employee, and training for the other employees to make sure this doesn't happen again.

We also reached out to the Department of Transportation to ask how this can be monitored more closely and what it can do about it. The department declined an interview but says it is difficult to regulate.

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