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Impersonate a service dog? Unfathomable! You might not do it, but some individuals do, and this causes a plethora of problems for service dog handlers, working dogs, and puppy raisers. As a disclaimer, much of this post is written from the perspective of a service dog raiser/trainer because that is where my experience with fake service dogs emanates from.
Fake Service Dogs and the Problems They Pose:
Service dogs undergo approximately 18-24 months of training through which they become highly socialized to other people, animals, sounds, etc. Through training and socialization activities, they learn how to ignore dogs who are barking, lunging, playful, and/or misbehaving. When fake, untrained service dogs encounter working service dogs in public, several problems can arise including, but not limited to, injuries. In this PBS News Hour article, Earle (a working service dog) experienced injuries after being bitten by a poodle whose owner was posing him as a service dog.
“My dog never moved, never retaliated, never barked. He did nothing. That is the way a service dog is trained”
Ollove, Michael (2017) cites Slavin, Chris, Earle’s handler.
Too Many Dogs:
Read closely as this is the only time my dog-loving self will ever type this: There can exist such a thing as too many dogs. As the use of legitimate service dogs becomes a more widely recognized and accepted practice in society, the number of dogs in public will undoubtedly increase. What is problematic, however, is when the number of untrained and/or under-trained dogs in public increases. Many of us possess a desire to take our dogs everywhere we go, but in reality, this is simply not practical. Further, it is our duty as dog owners to reserve those public access rights for legitimate working service dogs and their handlers!
Public Access Denial:
Restaurants, stores, airport personnel, and other business establishment owners face the unnecessary challenge of figuring out how to navigate a situation in which they suspect a dog is being posed as a fake service dog. By law and pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), only two questions are permissible to ask upon determining the legitimacy of a service dog:
1. Is the dog required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Business owners often must weigh the outcomes of two possible decisions: 1. The costs associated with being sued for denying a legitimate service dog team their public access rights and 2. The costs and dangers of admitting a fake service dog into their establishment. Unfortunately, protecting the integrity of the establishment sometimes results in the denial of public access rights for deserving individuals and their working service dogs. This undoubtedly poses unnecessary obstacles for individuals whose physical and/or mental disabilities already present with a host of accompanying challenges.
One negative encounter with a fake service dog is often enough justification for people to deem service dogs as “ill-behaved,” “not worthy of being in public,” “mean,” “dumb,” “aggressive,” etc. This is harmful because the years of training these dogs undergo with their dedicated trainers is often negated and disregarded. Although I have no concrete evidence to support this claim, it is my opinion that service dog handlers’ reputations could additionally be affected. I speculate that others may deem them as “irresponsible,” “unable to control their animals,” “incapable,” “lazy,” etc. as a result of the actions of dog owners who pose their pets as fake service dogs.
You log onto your computer, do a general search for service dog vest, click purchase, and within a few days a $20 service dog vest is delivered to your doorstep. Convenience, right? Wrong! For your pet who has never been in a public establishment, you are about to expose them to what will likely be an overwhelming, anxiety-producing, and stressful experience. Are you and your $20 fake service dog vest equipped to deal with that?
Dogs need practice in social environments which entails a great deal of socialization. This may first require starting off small (perhaps standing outside of a mall) before working up to more complex outings (walking in a grocery store next to a shopping cart or performing a long down stay in a good-smelling restaurant). In essence, a non-working dog cannot be introduced to a public space and be expected to automatically respond positively to it. Without adequate training, proper socialization, and exposure, the dog may be subject to stress and become fearful. Your previously non-aggressive, “wouldn’t hurt a fly” dog may start to exhibit behavioral issues such as aggression toward a passerby.
Aside from experience in public settings, dogs often need exposure to wearing a vest. Halfway through training Pinella for service dog work, she experienced harness sensitivity. Putting on the vest was sometimes anxiety-provoking for her, and she would refuse to respond to cues. However, through additional training and positive associations, we were able to overcome it. This example serves as yet another testament to the nature of the work that is required to produce legitimate service dogs — it is not as simple as putting on a vest and strolling into public!
Untrained and Under-trained:
As mentioned throughout this post, fake service dogs are often untrained or under-trained. Without the adequate training, their “service dog” life is unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory. They are unsure of how to respond and behave. I equate it to an accountant, for example, walking into an operating room to perform open-heart surgery. That would be uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and rather unfair to expose that individual to that type of situation without proper training — the same goes for service dogs!
Irresponsible Dog Ownership:
When I think about the act of faking one’s pet as a legitimate service dog, I often question the motive. Is this an individual who has little respect and regard for the rights of others? Perhaps this is someone who would be an ideal candidate for a service dog but lacks education about problems that impersonating service dogs can pose? Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of dog owners to become better educated about the potential dangers that impersonating a service dog can pose to you, your pet, service dog handlers, working dogs, and the general public.
In addition, individuals with legitimate service dogs are required at all times to accompany and maintain control of their service dog when in public. Otherwise, they are lawfully allowed to be asked to leave the establishment. This emphasizes that the Americans with Disabilities Act upholds service dogs and their handlers to high standards, thereby setting the stage for responsible dog ownership.
Legal Obstacles and General Challenges:
In writing this post, I utilized numerous articles to clarify exactly what the laws are regarding misrepresentation of service dogs. Here is where a dilemma arose: Via an internet search using key terms such as fake service dogs and crime, many articles indicate that the ADA warrants impersonating a service dog as a federal crime. In assessing the provisions of the ADA itself, I was unable to locate any information regarding the like. However, the American Bar Association indicated that, while the ADA has no such provisions, individual states have associated misrepresentation of a service dog as a misdemeanor (Goren, 2014). In addition to this conundrum, there does not exist a national registry for service dogs that is recognized by the Department of Justice. Service dogs are also not required to be harnessed in a vest or wear an identification badge, and covered entities are not permitted to request documentation from the handler that confirms the dog has been trained, certified, or licensed (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015).
…’Ruff’ stuff, am I right?
Since becoming involved in the service dog community, I have heard various stories about the independence that service dogs provide to their partners. For example, prior to having a service dog, some individuals are unable to leave their residences and enter public spaces (due to physical constraints, mental limitations, etc.). Service dogs essentially assist in mitigating those types of challenges. When fake service dogs are introduced, problems arise on many levels.
Taking Pinella into public is undoubtedly the thing I miss the most about her service dog training. However, as her responsible pet owner, I recognize that it is my moral and civic obligation to respect the rights of working dogs, their handlers, and their former hard-working raisers/trainers. As an alternative, we now opt for outings to pet-friendly establishments such as PetSmart and Lowe’s (while still keeping in mind that we must leave or relocate upon seeing a working or in-training service dog)!
If you are someone who truly believes that having a dog in public would assist you in gaining independence and mitigating challenges that accompany your physical and/or mental disability, then I urge you to do your research! Find the nearest service dog organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International and inquire! If cost becomes an issue, get creative with fundraising, look for organizations that provide dogs for free, or inquire about possible payment plan options. Always remember, there are thousands of individuals like myself who dedicate their time, energy, and money to reputable service dog organizations in an effort to simplify the process for deserving individuals to obtain a highly trained service dog! If you need help, please feel free to reach out to me via my Contact page! 🙂
I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy, yet informative post! As you can tell, this is a topic that sparks a never-ending passion in me! Don’t forget to follow and like Sit, Stay, & Blog on Twitter and Facebook, and stay tuned for next week’s post! 🙂
Goren, W.D. (2014). Service dogs and the rights of the disabled. In March/April 2014: Disability law. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2014/march_april/service_dogs_and_rights_the_disabled.html
Ollove, Michael. (2017, October 16). These 19 states are cracking down on fake service dogs. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/19-states-cracking-fake-service-dogs
U.S. Department of Justice. (2015, July 20). Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html