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.
"My speech presents often as if I am drunk, so they think maybe I'm trying to pull something," said Hamachek, who was struck with post-viral encephalitis when she was 19 and has also lost her balance and motor skills.
"It's very frustrating because I obviously need my dog and my dog's very well behaved," she said. "Other people with fake dogs, while I understand they love their dogs and want them to be with them at all times, they are ruining it for us who use the dogs for legitimate reasons."
Some people, whom Canine Companions officials characterize as "misguided," simply claim their pets are service dogs to gain access. Others go further, as the Sonoma County woman does, buying dog vests that can cost $300 and are sold over the Internet to aid their pretense, said Hudson.
But the masquerading assistance dogs often betray themselves by displaying aggressive behavior that genuine service animals are trained against.
"Very frequently, I come across people in public that have supposed service dogs, wearing a vest, and as soon as that dog sees my dog, they go ballistic," said Steve Moore of Rohnert Park, an Iraq veteran whose service dog, Chew, helps him with post traumatic stress disorder.
Moore, 32, also trains dogs, including service dogs, and said, "Some of the people I work with have been trying to pass their dogs as service dogs when they're not."
Santa Rosa CityBus officials said when dogs misbehave on buses their owners are asked to leave with their animals, but laws prevent drivers from doing more than asking if the dog is a service provider.
"We don't have the time or desire to get into debates with people as to whether they have a service dog or not, and that's a dangerous debate to get into in the civil rights arena," said Steve Roraus, City Bus transit supervisor.
"All we can do is take their word for it," Roraus said, adding that there have been few reported incidents involving problems with dogs on buses.
Canine Companions is trying to rally support to address the problem through a petition campaign to get the federal Department of Justice involved in some way. One solution, Hudson said, might be a registration system to provide some official identification.
He conceded that it was only two years ago that the ADA was revised to exclude animals such as lizards and birds as official service animals, and that took a decade of effort.
"I predict this is going to take 10 years,' he said.
That's too long, other advocates said.
"If it gets bad enough in the future, our worry is that legally the rights could be taken away," Lauren Tyler, assistant dog program manager at the Bergin Institute of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park.
"All it's going to take is one dog that's not a legal service dog to bite someone in public, so definitely something needs to be done," Tyler said. "Some sort of licensing and some sort of registration and identification that the dog is legitimate is required."
The Sonoma County woman who spoke on condition of anonymity said her dog is well trained and has never caused a problem.
"As long as I don't feel that what I'm doing is causing damage or distress to someone else I feel OK about it," she said. "I feel if everybody was doing it, especially people who are not as conscientious or careful about it as I am, it would be a problem."
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or email@example.com.