When trained properly service dogs can improve the quality of life of a veteran. However, due to lack of regulation, a lot of people are giving their pets that same title.
John Holowenko was 17-years-old when he made the decision to enlist in the Navy. “I was raised in a military family so I knew exactly what it meant," Holowenko said. But Holowenko says what he wasn't prepared for was the return to civilian life years later.
His frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs only worsened the PTSD and anxiety orders he developed. "I don't trust people around me. I have to have my back against the wall. I go to a restaurant and eat I have to have a booth in the corner," Holowenko said.
VA doctors prescribed him a service animal and after a long search, and with the help of the organization Service Dogs 4 Veterans, Holowenko adopted a 2-month-old puppy named Fubar. "It was about 7 months…I'd start to fidget and he'd start doing stuff like nibbling on my fingertips getting me to pay attention to him, " Holowenko said.
Now a lead trainer for the non-profit, Holowenko puts other dogs through the same rigorous training Fubar went through, to meet ADA guidelines. However, because of a lack of oversight from the federal agency, there has been a spike in fake service dogs, which have minimal training.
"Anybody can throw a vest on a service animal and say 'oh it is my service dog,'" said Holowenko.
Holowenko says there is no registry or certification process that distinguishes a service dog from a pet. That argument is at the center of a case involving an Ohio man who was cited by a VA hospital for bringing his service dog, which he claims is ADA compliant, but is not recognized by the VA.
"There should be certain steps and there should be a certain inspection process that's involved," Holowenko said.
Holowenko says the ADA guidelines are too vague and leave room for interpretation and the lack of regulation has allowed people to profit off the system. News 5 found several websites claiming owners can register their service dogs and selling service dog certificates, both things not recognized by the government.