Team Foster: Helping Veterans and Their Service Dogs Connect with Businesses in Communities Across PA

If you’ve ever entered a store and seen a dog accompanying its owner, chances are you’ve seen that animal wearing a distinctive vest, indicating their status as a service dog. While just as lovable as the pets we enjoy at home, service dogs offer extra therapeutic gifts – they’re extremely intelligent and highly trained. Most importantly, each time you see a service dog at a place of business, that animal is on an important and specialized mission – helping their human navigate the business they’re patronizing.

Employers who understand some customers’ needs for service dogs and welcome them should be commended. For those who might not yet have the information they need to make that decision, organizations like Team Foster exist to inform more people (including businesses) about why certain people (in their case, veterans) need these animals – and why there shouldn’t be a cause for concern when a properly trained and accredited animal enters their doorway.

On a Mission

UPMC’s Senior Manager of Government Advocacy and Communications Kate Ellison serves on Team Foster’s Board of Directors. The nonprofit veterans’ charity group was founded in honor of Captain Erick Foster after he was Killed in Action, and aims to provide life-saving, highly trained service dogs to injured and disabled veterans at no cost to the veteran. Team Foster is inspired to honor Captain Foster’s legacy by pushing those around them to achieve hard things and care for others.

The organization’s mission is three-fold: to raise the funds that connect veterans with service dogs; to advocate for veterans and their service dogs to the community, workplace, and legislature; and to educate the public about the myriad benefits service dogs provide to veterans who are facing physical and mental challenges.

Craig Hodgkins has benefitted first-hand from Team Foster’s life-changing services. His nine-year old Long-Hair German Shepard, Foxy, has been paired with him for four years. Weeks after they were paired, Foxy showed her first superhero move – alerting him in the middle of the night that something was wrong. After responding to Foxy’s cues and driving to the hospital, Craig was informed that he had internal bleeding – something that could have been much worse if he wasn’t treated right away. Foxy also helps Craig recover from PTSD-related night terrors. She is trained to help alleviate a number of other stressors and ailments, including seizure recognition, anxiety disorder, mobility and balance support, and heart-related issues. Craig describes another heroic Foxy moment: “About two months after we were paired, I had still been having issues sleeping … and around midnight, I felt Foxy’s paws on my face and heard the fire alarm going off. As quickly as I could, I got Foxy vested, and we made our way out of the apartment. When we got outside, people were yelling to get out of the building and there were firetrucks everywhere, and I saw up one floor from ours the smoke and the glow of flames from the window. Foxy was never trained to respond to that type of situation, but it just shows you how well-trained she is. She was named service dog of the year for getting me out of the building.”

Team Foster wants to protect our veterans, and in the process, protect citizens with service dogs AND businesses across the state.

Ellison said that Team Foster is combatting misinformation through education and awareness. “We’re trying to get employers to realize that these dogs are trained to conduct tasks [for their owners],” she says, and that the organization is in the process of creating a patch that would be optional to put on the dog’s vest to help employers recognize that the dog is an accredited service dog. In addition, Ellison points out that it’s not illegal to bring fraudulent service dogs into businesses – a fact they’re working to spread awareness about by meeting with lawmakers to provide more education and show what other states have done or are doing to address problems of people with service dogs being turned away.

“Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of just several states that have not made it illegal to misrepresent their pets as service dogs,” Ellison says. “And with no legal backstop in place, business owners have grown skeptical of people buying easily-sourced service animal vests and placing them on their pets. The result is that more and more of our Veterans utilizing properly trained service dogs are faced with skepticism, push-back, and outright denials of their legal rights to access.

“Team Foster wants to protect our veterans, and in the process, we can protect all citizens with service dogs AND businesses across the state. We owe it to our veterans, and Pennsylvania has a large veteran community. We want our elected officials to know that this problem exists and that people needing service dogs receive higher levels of criticism and pushback than they should. With the information we provide, our goal is for more people to stop and pause before they question – and be educated and aware.”


Working with state lawmakers, Team Foster wants to make it easier for veterans and their service dogs to enter places of business in the Commonwealth.

Here are three areas of opportunity that they’ve identified toward achieving that goal:


  1. Providing a Trained Service Dog Patch


Team Foster recommends that Pennsylvania offer a service dog identification patch. In Michigan, a similar law now provides a voluntary patch and ID card to qualifying applicants and their trained service animals. By providing a notarized statement and a medical professional’s signature, owners can receive the patch, which provides visual identification and lets people know the dog is a trained and qualified service dog.


2. Deterring the Misrepresentation of Service Dogs


Many disabled people with service dogs have faced discrimination from business owners and other patrons due to prior bad experiences with fraudulent service dogs. Because of bad experiences, some businesses have gone so far as to deny service dog users access – which is against the law.

In 2018, Pennsylvania’s Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act was signed into law. It assists housing communities in evaluating a resident’s claim that he or she requires an assistance or service animal (which by law are not “pets”) as an accommodation for a disability. The law imposes a penalty for misrepresentations of entitlement to an assistance or service animal and only applies to housing. Team Foster is seeking to expand the law to include restaurants, hotels, public transportation, and other places of business so they are protected as well.

  • In other states, those who try to pass off an unqualified animal as a service animal or a service animal-in-training face penalties such as a misdemeanor, potential prison time, fines, and community service.
  • In California, for example, a law was signed in 2021 to address the issue of increased selling and misrepresentation of emotional support animals as service animals. It also seeks to prevent businesses that sell special ESA certificates, ID cards, vests, and harnesses that seek to mislead others into thinking the emotional support animal is a service animal.


  1. Increasing Education and Awareness


    • Team Foster aims to educate the business community and public on the differences between service animals and emotional support animals. Their goal is to create and implement a state-run, robust public education effort about the rights and responsibilities of service animals.
      • While comfort animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan, they are not considered service animals under the Americans With Disabilities Act, as they do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities and are not limited to working with people with disabilities.


They also aim to develop model signage (i.e., Service Dogs Welcome”) for public accommodations and housing.


Service animals must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.

Owners, managers, or staff of public spaces are permitted to ask only two questions to determine if the animal qualifies as a service animal:

(1) whether the animal is required because of a disability;

(2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.


You can learn more about Team Foster and their efforts at