Over the past decade, autism diagnoses have increased 78 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Add to that, hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from war with visible and invisible disabilities. The result is a quickly growing number of people who might benefit from a service dog.
In a 10News Investigation, we found that despite a potentially increased need, there is little oversight. What regulation is out there leaves room for people to cheat the system, making it tough for those who legitimately need the service.
A little more than a year ago, a trip to the zoo may have been out of the question for 7-year-old Hunter King and his mom Jennifer.
"Hunter was diagnosed as severely autistic at 18 months," King said. "He is completely non-verbal, he uses sign language."
He's also a runner.
"He will undo locks and get out of the house. His head banging was so severe that he has busted out windows, he's blacked both of his eyes," said King.
But Hunter's four-legged friend has changed all that. King says Andy, Hunter's service dog, has brought his head banging down to almost non-existent. Andy also keeps Hunter from running off and brings him comfort when they're out.
You could say the pair is inseparable. Before Andy could stay by Hunter's side, he spent time training at Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville.
Tiffany Denyer founded Wilderwood in 2005. Her dog training specializes in helping neurological disorders. So far, more than 60 pups, like Andy, have gone to help people around the country.
Each animal at Wilderwood goes through a 19-step process to evaluate everything from personality to strength. Dogs log hundreds of training hours during a 18-month to 2-year period. They're taught the basics and eventually specific skills to help with specific disabilities, such as autism.
But service dog oversight it sparse. Tennessee law and the Americans with Disabilities Act both define what a service dog is and lay out guidelines for where they can go. The ADA also outlines questions business owners are legally allowed to ask a person about his or her service dog.
Despite this, no one regulates what training entails or certifies it. It's an issue that bothers some trainers who use widely-accepted benchmarks in their programs.
"The standard is the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test. But it's not mandated, so a dog doesn't necessarily have to pass that," Denyer said.
Click here to read more about Tennessee and other states' laws concerning service dogs.
The ADA and state laws are so loose that they also allow people to train their own service dogs without any set criteria.
Willie Tilton self-trained her service dog Eddie. He uses his four legs to give hers stability; an accident a few years ago left her with weak knees.
"If I get off balance, he leans into his harness and pulls me back up," Tilton explained.
Tilton also said she has past experience as a dog trainer, but Denyer says that's not true in every self-training situation.
"If you get the wrong dog, or the wrong kind of training that chronic sustained stress leads to all sorts of negative behaviors," Denyer said.
That's not the case with Eddie who is passive while he works. Tilton believes education about self-training is key. She also pointed to cost as a factor of why she supports it. Program-trained dogs can cost thousands of dollars.
"If I hadn't been able to owner-train him, my quality of life would have been abysmal," Tilton said.
Even though Tilton and Denyer have different views about training, they agree a lack of oversight is harmful to those who need service dogs the most.
"What's to keep an individual from buying a vest online, putting it on a dog, and carrying it in and demanding access?" asked Denyer.
"When you have someone that comes along and fakes it, it's unbelievably offensive," Tilton said.
10News also spoke with several other trainers in the industry, including Smoky Mountain Service Dogs in Loudon County. All of them agree there's no easy way to fix the regulation problem. For Denyer, it means creating a federal law.
"We advocate a standardize testing for all service dogs so that a service dog badge means something," Denyer said.
Tilton cautions against government interference.
"You cannot come up with one specific regulation for service dogs because what a guide dog needs to know is totally different than what a seizure dog needs to know," Tilton said.
There is no doubt, the issue of service dog oversight is complex.
"We're not taking the dog just because we want a pet to go everywhere with us," Jennifer King said.
Owners, like King, believe the results of having a furry family member, like Andy, are simple.
"It's changed hunter's life," she said.