Fake Service Dogs: A Problem for Disabled Americans

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: September 01, 2015
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Last post I gushed about guide dogs and how these service canines change the lives of those they serve while receiving constant human companionship.

Service dogs are being trained for all sorts of human support, from helping returning soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder or war related disabilities to appearing in courtrooms next to the witness stand as support for children giving testimony in child abuse cases. Colleges are also using service dogs to help students cope with the stress of school away from their home environment. Service dogs are truly making a difference in people’s lives.

But there is a growing online industry of those selling vests and identification materials so owners can take their untrained dogs on planes or into places that restrict the presence of pets. This growing trend is causing added discrimination to those truly needing service dogs. Often, they are denied access to areas otherwise open to them because of the increased scrutiny for fraudulent behavior of ordinary dog owners.

In the latest Journal of the American Veterinary Association, a short article reports the efforts of an organization to ban illegal service dog identification paraphernalia. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, has started collecting signatures for a pledge urging a crackdown on the online sale of fraudulent products. So far CCI has collected 29,862 signatures toward their 50,000 signature goal. The pledge is intended to bring awareness of the problem to the United States Department of Justice for action on their part.

Peter Morgan has a spinal disorder and relies on his service dog, Echuka. Peter explains the extent of the problem caused by fraudulent canine identification.

“In the last few years, the questions and the looks I get have radically changed. Now wherever I go, I see fraudulent service dogs. I have been kicked out of businesses because employees think I’m an imposter.”

Ironically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) policies encourage the fraudulent behavior. Despite Peter’s sometimes unfortunate outcomes, the ADA states that those with service dogs can only be asked the following questions by the staff of any business:

  1. Is the dog a service dog because of a disability?
  1. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Anyone dressing their dog as a service dog could easily rehearse acceptable answers to these questions. Such an easy test encourages fraudulent behavior. This is actually easier than getting a fraudulent “emotional support letter” from a doctor or psychological service provider. Just go on Amazon.com, order your dog’s vest, and rehearse your lines. Who doesn’t want their dog with them in public places? Why don’t we all do this? The problem is that these pets are not TRAINED service dogs.

Service Dog Training

No matter which function they have, service dogs are highly trained and socialized. Their job requires a level of behavior and response that regular pets are not trained for. Service dogs are highly trained to hold their bodily functions and trained to eliminate at specific times, in specific areas, or on specific surfaces. In fact, most dogs that enter service training do not graduate but are career changed and adopted out as pets.

Some humans will game any system, whether it is a dishonest disabled parking sticker or unwarranted Social Security Disability insurance. But I find causing needless problems for those truly in need of service dogs in order to satisfy a convenient personal preference is particularly sinister. More and more businesses are becoming pet friendly, so there is no need for such deceit. 

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Michelle D. Milliman / Shutterstock