‘Lawless’ world of service dogs leaves families vulnerable to fraud
APEX, N.C. — All the counseling, therapy and medication did little to ease 9-year-old Sobie Cummings’ crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. And so a psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help the autistic child connect with other kids.
To Glenn and Rachel Cummings, Mark Mathis seemed like a dream come true. His kennel, Ry-Con Service Dogs, was just a couple of hours away, and he, too, had a child with autism. But what clinched the decision were Mathis’ credentials.
“Is Ry-Con a certified program? Yes,” stated an online brochure. “In 2013, Mark was certified as a NC state approved service dog trainer with a specialty in autism service dogs for children.”
Ten months and $14,500 later, the family brought home a shaggy mop of a dog that Sobie had come to view as her “savior.” But when they opened the front door, Okami broke from Glenn Cummings’ grasp and began mauling one of the family’s elderly dogs — all as Sobie watched from the stairs in mute horror.
It was only after they had returned Okami and asked for a refund that the family learned the truth: Mathis was not a state-certified dog trainer. In fact, North Carolina has no such certification program — and neither does any other state.
The service dog industry — particularly in the field of “psychiatric” service dogs for people with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder — has exploded in recent years. But a near complete absence of regulation and oversight has left needy, desperate families vulnerable to incompetence and fraud.
“It is a lawless area. The Wild West,” says David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University and editor of its Animal Legal and Historical Center website.
Properly training a service dog can take up to one and a half years and cost upward of $50,000, depending on the tasks it is taught to perform. But the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require that a service dog be professionally trained or certified. And, according to the US Department of Justice , local and state agencies are prohibited from requiring that the dogs be registered.
“It needs to be specially trained to do tasks that relate to the person’s disability, but it doesn’t say anything about who does the training or the quality of training or the efficacy of it,” says Lynette Hart, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis. “So it’s a very broad, wide-open barn door.”
The ADA allows people to train their own service dogs. But Hart, who has co-authored studies of the industry, says most don’t have the time, wherewithal or confidence to do so, and that puts needy families “in a calamitous situation.” ″They’re easy prey,” says Hart, whose late brother had autism.
In 2012, the state of Illinois sued Lea Kaydus and Animals for Autism over a “heartless scam” in which she took several thousand dollars from families but never matched them with dogs. Kaydus was ordered to pay restitution.
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