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Judge snookered by service dog claim

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 11:42 a.m.

LEVITTOWN — Call it the case of doggie deception.

A Bucks County district judge says he fell for a dog owner's story that her wiener dog had a right to be in the courtroom with her for medical reasons. Now Judge Daniel Baranoski is warning his county colleagues to be on the lookout for similar phony service dog claims.

On Tuesday, the woman appeared before Baranoski in his Penndel courtroom for a hearing on a traffic ticket. As she waited for her case to be called, she sat in the gallery with a dachshund on her lap.

When Baranoski questioned the dog's presence, the woman answered that he was a service dog.

What service does the dog provide? Baranoski asked.

“Psychological,” the woman said, then she handed the judge a business-card-size paper stating the dog was “properly registered” with the “United States Service Dog Registry.”

Baranoski, who admits he didn't know much about service dogs, let the woman and dog stay, but heard her case next to get the dog out of the courtroom.

Later, the judge and his staff learned that the documentation the woman provided is not required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the organization that issued it is considered questionable, according to service dog handlers and organizations.

Healthy, able-bodied dog owners who circumvent the Americans with Disabilities law to get the access for their pets make life harder for people with disabilities who rely on service dogs and face additional scrutiny and skepticism from business owners, advocates for the disabled and service dog experts say.

The same federal law that allows service dogs to accompany people with disabilities also lets virtually anyone claim to qualify. Falsely claiming a service dog isn't illegal, either. The law also doesn't require that service dogs be registered, certified or undergo specific training.

As a result of such loopholes, online businesses offering to identify or register “service dogs” — sight-unseen, often for a fee — have flourished, said Corey Hudson, president of Assistance Dogs International North America, which represents 95 accredited service dog training groups in the United States.

With a service dog designation, dog owners can bring their pet into restaurants, courtrooms, hotels and restricted housing. The pets also can fly for free in airplane cabins rather than cargo holds, and ride on public transportation.

“We firmly believe that the majority of people that purchase this assistance dog paraphernalia are, in fact, violating the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Hudson wrote in a letter to the U.S. Attorney General's Office about the problem.

The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching the United States Service Dog Registry for comment. But according to its website, the organization provides “free and voluntary online self-registration” of service dogs. It also sells service dog identification products, including a $50 documentation package.

The group describes itself online as “an independent, non-governmental, privacy-conscious and secure service ... for disabled individuals who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act to use a service or assistance dog.”

The website also states that registrants are required to “pass through its ‘Education Gateway,' ” which requires reading and accepting six registration terms, including “minimum training standards for a service or assistance animal” and “the definition of a service or assistance animal.”

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