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Maybe this has happened to you. You're in the grocery store, and you see somebody using a service dog, complete with a distinctive little vest. But something seems off. Service dogs are supposed to help people with disabilities, but some people without disabilities act like they have them. Apparently, some people obtain fake service animal certificates and vests so they can take the animals where pets are not allowed, which is creating a problem for those who really do depend on service animals.

Lisa Napoli reports from member station KCRW in Santa Monica.

LISA NAPOLI, BYLINE: Lauren Henderson goes everywhere with her service dog, Phoebe - the grocery store, Disneyland, to the beach. For Henderson, who used to be paralyzed, her 100 pound lumbering St. Bernard is a necessity.

LAUREN HENDERSON: She's basically like a living walker - only better. I can tug on her. I can use her for stability and balance. And also, if I do fall, she braces, stands there really tight and helps pull me back up on to my feet.

NAPOLI: Lately, Henderson's noticed more dogs than ever are wearing vests that label them as service animals. But she can tell they're different from Phoebe.

HENDERSON: They're shaking, and they're like peeing and like barking incessantly, or even sometimes growling at people and, you know, they'll have a service dog vest on. I know how service dogs are trained though, and know the behavior that they're meant to display in public and definitely are not, and that's not a service dog.

NAPOLI: A service dog is highly trained and performs a specific task for its disabled owner. It's different than a therapy dog, which comforts the sick and elderly, or an emotional support animal, which soothes anxiety. These days, there's also the chance a dog wearing a vest isn't any of those things.

TIM LIVINGOOD: Because the laws are broad, some people do get away with that.

NAPOLI: Tim Livingood runs one of many websites that sell certification paraphernalia. For 65 bucks, you can get papers and patches and vests to make your dog look official. You can even buy a prescription letter from a psychiatrist after taking an online quiz.

While his business is called the official sounding National Service Animal Registry, Livingood says no such thing exists.

LIVINGOOD: There's no government sanctioned registration agency because federal law does not require registration, or IDs, or patches, or a property manager or the airlines can not mandate that you have a harness with service animal patches or ID cards. They can't ask you to produce one.

JOANNE SHORTELL: We don't' have any clue how many fake service dogs there are because a lot of the real service dogs look like fake service dogs.

NAPOLI: Joanne Shortell says in her work educating people about their rights to have service animals, there is a lot of confusion. While today more people are coping with a range of illnesses and disabilities thanks to animals, Shortell says the terminology and web of access rights make it almost impossible to sort out the frauds.

SHORTELL: A lot of people assume when someone walks in with a toy poodle in their arms and a tutu on it, it can't be a service dog, but it can. It can be a diabetes dog with a little old lady.

NAPOLI: A dog trained to smell and react to the chemical changes in its owner's blood sugar has different access rights than an untrained emotional support dog someone takes on a plane.

Antonette Sorrick is the executive director of California's State Board of Guide Dogs. Among other things, her agency's job is to help cut through the confusion.

ANTONETTE SORRICK: I had a restaurant owner ask me once if a guide dog would sit on the lap of a customer. And I said a guide dog will never sit on the lap, that's not what they're trained to do.

NAPOLI: All of this is making it harder for service dogs, like Phoebe the St. Bernard, to do what she was trained to do: Help Lauren Henderson get around.

HENDERSON: It just makes service dogs look bad. Everyone thinks I'm a faker now, and she's a faker.

NAPOLI: And while the true fakers are hard to vet, it is against the law: In California, pretending your dog is a service animal when it's not is a misdemeanor.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Napoli in Santa Monica.

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