INDIANAPOLIS - Service animals play a vital role in the lives of people with disabilities, but a vague federal law does not explain who can sell identifications, detail certification or registration requirements or specify training standards.
The Indiana Canine Assistance Network, or ICAN, is a nonprofit organization that pairs about 10 people each year with service animals. Just to be considered, clients must get two doctors' references detailing their need and ability to handle a dog.
ICAN's dogs begin training at eight months under the care of selected inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. Over a two-year period, the dogs are taught various tasks, such as opening doors, removing clothing and helping people who have fallen.
"When we send a dog out, we essentially know it's bomb proof. It's not going to misbehave or bark," said Sally Irvin, ICAN executive director. "We have a very big demand. Most programs do, and we can't meet the demand."
The law doesn't require people to get their dog from a training program. People who have a disability can train their own animal.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability with their day-to-day activities.
Federal law indicates that such animals are considered service animals whether they have been licensed or certified by state or local government.
The Call 6 Investigators found that the law enumerates training mandates, but it doesn't require proof that a service animal can perform a skill or certification that the animal is safe to be in a public place, such as a restaurant or store.
"Ultimately, I would be more in favor of checks and balances," Irvin said.
Assistance Dogs International, or ADI, independently certifies nonprofit service dog training programs and wants clarity from federal regulators.
ADI also wants a crackdown on businesses that provide service animal certifications.
"With an ever increasing concern about the numerous intranet companies that sell assistance dog vests and IDs to people sight unseen to provide the owners of pet dogs access as if they were legitimate assistance dogs," ADI President Corey Hudson wrote. "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."
The Call 6 investigators found several businesses legally selling badges, IDs, and certificates for service dogs that look official, but are not required by law.
While the websites warn about misusing their service, they mailed certification materials without verification.
At workingservicedog.com, The Call 6 Investigators paid $118 to get ID cards and a badge that reads "Registered Service Dog."
"This is amazing," said Irvin. "There is no such thing as a registration for a service dog. That doesn't exist."
Workingservicedog.com did not respond to a request for comment from the Call 6 Investigators.
For $33.90, servicedogid.com mailed a certificate that Call 6 Investigator Rafael Sanchez had a trained service dog, though he doesn't even own a dog.
Owner Bruce Broyles said he counts on people to tell the truth. His website asks people to denote that they have a disability and are in compliance with ADA rules before placing an order.
Broyles said he wouldn't mind if the government put him out of business to improve oversight of service animal rules.
"If it came down to me being in business and the federal government taking over and regulating this, I would much prefer that," Broyles said.
Broyles offered to refund the $33.90.
For $161.44, freemypaws.com sent identification cards and a vest. Company President Jason Michaels said he supplies products to be used by qualified people.
"Free My Paws is very clear in its communication to clients that we cannot and do not certify or register animals; no organization, charity or business can," Michaels wrote as part of a detailed email to the Call 6 Investigators.
Michaels contends it is important to protect the rights of people who individually train their service dogs.
"We further support the view that we could all benefit, if the government clarified some of the rights of disabled Americans and most importantly the duties of the public and business in supporting these rights, presently many areas of the ADA are grey and leave a lot to interpretation," he wrote.