Ann Meacham recently got on an Amtrak bus out of Santa Rosa. Her service dog, Duncan, settled in at her feet. A couple with a pit bull got on at the next stop. Non-service dogs aren't allowed on public transportation, but the dog owners "merely said it was one," said Meacham.
For the rest of the ride, the dog snarled at Duncan, said Meacham, 55, who said she has had several similar encounters on county and city buses.
"It's scary. And I'm sure it scares the people around us," said Meacham, who relies on her 9-year-old flat-coated retriever to help her manage life with a traumatic brain injury she suffered in a car accident.
Service dog owners and their advocates are troubled these days by what seems to be a plague of people representing their pets as service dogs, which undergo specialized, lengthy training not only on how to assist their owners but how to behave in public.
"If you talk to any of our graduates, they talk about it all the time," said Corey Hudson, CEO of the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence of Santa Rosa, one of the most prominent organizations that trains both assistance dogs and the people who rely on them.
It's easy to do, said one Sonoma County woman who travels everywhere with her 50-pound dog.
"I just explain that I get attacks of vertigo and my dog is trained to assist me and lead me to a safe place," said the woman, who spoke on the condition she not be identified.
"In fact," she said, "I do get attacks of vertigo and she does assist me, but it's very rare and I could do without her."
The problem is evident beyond public transit.
"Everyone will claim their dog is a service dog," said Darren Chapple, a manager at downtown Santa Rosa restaurant La Rosa Tequileria & Grille.
"It's one of those things," he said. "We can't necessarily call them out on it, but it's sometimes obvious."
The Sonoma County scofflaw said she doesn't try to enter local restaurants, but will take her pet into patio eating areas.
The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that leashed or harnessed service dogs be allowed into businesses and other facilities open to the public. Dog owners can be asked what tasks the dog performs, but nothing about the nature of their disability, the law says. But dogs "whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support" do not qualify as service animals permitted entrance.
The Sonoma County woman said she puts her pet in a vest she bought online. It doesn't identify her dog as a service animal, she said, but it helps ease the way.
"I do feel that I'm stretching the rules," she said. "Maybe I'm just rationalizing, but she's a joy wherever she goes."
Service dog owners say people misrepresenting themselves and their pets in places from shops to airports has led to a backlash.
Local businesses know her and her dog by now, said Ann Hamachek of Santa Rosa, whose speech has been altered by illness. She uses wheelchairs and walkers, and relies on a service dog, Steffie.
But when she travels, store owners who have encountered problematic pet dogs often question whether she is truly disabled and tell her dogs aren't allowed, she said.