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That dog you see in public might not be a legit service animal

Outside Whole Foods in downtown LA, a sign directs people to not bring in their pets, only service animals.
Outside Whole Foods in downtown LA, a sign directs people to not bring in their pets, only service animals.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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"No animals allowed here except service animals."

It's a sign that's becoming more and more common in Southern California – at grocery stores, restaurants, amusement parks and more.

But people might say their dog is a service animal just to abuse the system and bring it everywhere.

"You walk in a grocery store and it's full of cockapoos, malteses, pekingeses and all sorts of frou-frou dogs whose behavior isn't necessarily in line with what you expect from a service dog," says Outside magazine columnist Wes Siler, who recently wrote "Stop Faking Service Dogs."

It's enough of a problem that the American Kennel Club calls it an "epidemic," and describes how true service animals go through years of training.

Some are guide dogs, while others may help calm a person who suffers from PTSD.

The Americans with Disabilities Act permits them to enter any facility, and also protects their owner from harassment: it is illegal to ask for an animal's documentation.

"You don't want to be asking somebody with a disability to prove they have a disability day in, day out," says Siler.

But there is catch: that means any one can purchase an official-looking certificate or vest for their dog that says, "service animal."

Then when these untrained pets enter a space, that can cause real problems for legitimate service animals and disabled people.

"They're being burdened by a dog barking at theirs or distracting theirs, or generally creating an unwelcome environment for service dogs," says Siler.

He has a simple message for people who may be faking their service animal: leave your pet and home so that true service dogs can do their work.

"Just think of the harm that you're doing," he says. "The problem is that people are choosing to be jerks about this. They're being irresponsible for being bad dog owners."

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.