They may look authentic, but on closer inspection, they're as fake as fur on a hairless pooch.

Bogus service dogs being passed off as the real deal have been causing problems for the disabled, businesses and the public for years.

"It's really bad," said Candy Muscari-Erdos, owner and chief executive officer of Mountain High Service Dogs in Palmer Lake. "I don't know what people are thinking. They want to have their dogs with them all the time or don't want to leave them in the car or at home."

That will change in Colorado come Jan. 1.

In the spring legislative session, state lawmakers approved changes that make intentionally misrepresenting a pet as a service animal a crime - a petty offense - carrying fines starting at $25 for the first offense, up to $200 for the second offense and as high as $500 for the third offense. The change in state law also allows landlords more authority in determining whether a service animal is legitimate. Public education, in terms of public service announcements and signage, is included in the bill.

Another proposal to criminalize service animal fraud with stiffer penalties failed in the last legislative session.

More people than ever are taking their dogs into stores, restaurants, shopping centers, museums, airplanes and other public spaces under false pretenses, said Muscari-Erdos, a service dog trainer of 10 years.

"I encounter a lot of people that have put vests on their dogs, particularly small dogs but big ones, too, and they'll put them in a grocery cart or a bag," she said.

Muscari-Erdos relies on her German shepherd to detect allergens that cause anaphylaxis, which she said is a life-threatening condition for her.

"Service dogs are considered our lifeline," she said, "equal to someone that needs a wheelchair or oxygen on a consistent basis."

People are buying fake service vests and putting them on their dogs to avoid extra fees at hotels or on airplanes. Teacup poodles, Saint Bernards, pit bulls and other breeds not normally associated with service animals have been spotted wearing vests and IDs, which can be obtained online from "registries" unaffiliated with any government agency.

Uncertainty about regulations governing service dogs are part of the problem, said Rachael Stafford, director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, headquartered in Colorado Springs.

"It's definitely a very hot topic and repeatedly questioned by all sides - businesses, local government and individuals," she said.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and amendments Congress passed in 2010, a service dog - one that performs duties the disabled owner cannot do - are allowed in businesses, with exceptions when safety is a concern, Stafford said. A miniature horse also can be a service animal, under the law.

A business owner or employee can ask a customer to remove a service animal that is acting aggressively, according to regulations.

A person accompanied by a service can be asked two questions: Is that a service dog and what duty is the dog trained to perform? Business owners and employees are not allowed to inquire about a person's disability.

Only dogs that carry out specific tasks for individuals with disabilities are covered under the ADA, Stafford said. Tasks include "seeing" for the blind, opening a door for someone who is physically unable to do so, and alerting an epileptic who is about to have a seizure.

"It's a fine line, arguably, about 'is that a task?'" Stafford said.

For example, having a dog that sits on someone's lap to help with anxiety is considered an emotional support or therapy dog and is not protected by ADA regulations, she said.

While a doctor may prescribe an animal that provides emotional companionship for a patient, that animal is not considered a service animal in the eyes of the law.

What about those vests?

Under the ADA, a service animal is not required to wear any external visual identification, such as a vest or harness saying "service dog" - although some service dog owners and trainers obtain accreditation through a service dog standards group - Assistance Dogs International - and display verification.

There is no law requiring accreditation and no official certification process for training service animals, Stafford said, which further complicates the issue.

"Because tasks are so unique or specific to an individual, there's no way to come up with general training or certification," Stafford said.

Walmart, King Soopers and many other stores have policies that prohibit entry to animals other than bona fide service dogs as defined by the ADA.

But people do it anyway, Muscari-Erdos said.

"People are getting pushy, and businesses are afraid of getting sued," she said, which she believes has led to the problem of people misrepresenting their pets as legitimate service animals.

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