Is That a Real Service Dog? (Or Is it Just Someone’s Pet?)

Looks can be deceiving—do you know how to spot a fake service dog? In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of “Assistance Animals” turning up in public places, helping their handlers who suffer from a wide variety of disabilities and afflictions. At the same time, unfortunately, there has also been an increase in confusion about these animals, which has sparked some controversy. This can be distressing to those who legitimately depend on a service dog to help cope with everyday life.

What is a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as “…any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” A service dog is distinct from an emotional support dog (ESD), who is prescribed by a doctor or a licensed therapist to provide a therapeutic benefit through dedicated companionship for a person who suffers from an emotional or mental disability.

Separate from each of these is the therapy dog: animal-assisted therapy involves an animal, in this case a dog, as a form of treatment. You might have seen therapy dogs at work in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools, libraries, and in other dog-friendly venues and situations. While a therapy dog can improve the lives of people in various settings, he is not trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled person as a service dog does—an important distinction. The same holds true for the ESD, who can help ease anxiety, depression, and other conditions in affected individuals, but is not a service dog and as such does not enjoy the same rights as a service dog. Only a service dog can go anywhere his handler goes.

The Hallmarks of a True Service Dog (Or, How to Spot a Fake)

How can you tell if a service dog is legitimate? Plenty of dog owners try to pass off their pets as service dogs to bring them into venues where dogs aren’t typically allowed. But a true service dog…

  • Is a working dog, trained to perform specific tasks, and thus must always be prepared to work. A dog being pushed around in a cart or sitting at a restaurant table is not a working dog.
  • Is almost always leashed for his own protection. The exception is a service dog trained to monitor a human’s bodily functions and is thus held close to the body.
  • Is rigorously trained and has impeccable leash manners: a dog who tugs at the leash is not a true service dog.
  • Never barks or whines except to alert the owner of an impending stroke or panic attack, for example. Barking out of impatience betrays a ‘service’ dog as an impostor.
  • Is trained to avoid distractions, including interesting smells. Even in a store, a service dog resists sniffing at items placed on lower shelves.
  • Never eliminates indoors.
  • Never steals food, and will even resist snapping up food dropped on the floor or ground.
  • Is fully socialized and thus self-assured and calm in a crowded venue.
  • Does not seek attention from anybody except the person holding his leash, because he recognizes he has important work to do.
  • Never shows signs of unprovoked aggression towards people or other animals, even if he is trained specifically to protect his handler.

Can I Ask Whether a Service Dog Is Legit?

A business owner can legally ask only two questions of a person with a service dog:

  1. Is your dog a service animal?
  2. What tasks is your dog trained to perform?

Here’s the rub, and part of a growing problem: when a person presents some kind of documentation to the business owner as an answer to these questions, the business owner may assume documentation is official, available, and should always be presented for any service dog—an incorrect assumption. This, unfortunately, puts owners of legitimate service dogs at risk of being refused access, when there is actually no legal requirement for them to present documentation for their dog to begin with.

In some circumstances, a disabled person may be asked for proof of disability or to verify the authenticity of a service dog. For example, if a disabled person files a discrimination complaint, that person must prove their disability and also produce proof of training for the service dog. Likewise, if a person with a service dog is arrested for trespass after bringing the dog into a place where dogs are not permitted, the burden to prove to the court the dog is an authentic service dog lies with the disabled handler, who may be asked to supply a litany of supporting documentation.

Can a Restaurant Deny a Service Dog?

A service dog can accompany his disabled handler anywhere the handler can go, including a restaurant. But the service dog can’t go with the handler where the handler can’t go—the kitchen in the restaurant, for example. There are some other exceptions, including operating rooms or burn units in a hospital, where the dog’s presence could compromise the sterile environment. And some zoos may legally restrict service dogs from interactive exhibits—an aviary is an example. Without his handler, a service dog may not go anywhere dogs are not allowed. In other words, if someone besides the disabled person is handling the dog, that someone may not take the dog into places considered off-limits for dogs. Alternately, a service dog may be asked to leave when its presence at a business or venue fundamentally interferes with the goods or services offered there—for example, when a service dog howls during a concert. Notably, churches are exempt from the ADA and thus are not required to permit service animals.

An emotional support dog may not be allowed in some places where a service dog is allowed, because the ESD lacks the training a service dog possesses to assist a person with a disability or impairment. The upshot is, you might not be able to take your ESD into restaurants, stores, or hotels. Your best bet is to ask first: some establishments will say yes.

But an emotional support dog is allowed access to almost all types of housing, even where no pets are allowed; an ESD enjoys protection under the Fair Housing Act—a letter from a doctor or therapist is all that is required. An ESD can also fly with his handler in the cabin of any plane per the terms of the Air Carrier Access Act—and the dog’s handler can’t be charged additional fees for housing or airlines access.

A therapy dog has no special rights, and like a companion animal, is allowed access only to the places they’ve been invited.

What Is the Penalty for Passing off a Fake Service Dog as the Real Thing?

Currently, 23 states have fake service dog/animal laws in the books, with some offenses punishable by fines and imprisonment. In some states—California and Florida, for example—claiming your companion dog is a service dog is a criminal offense that falls under the aegis of Fraudulent Representation legislation. In each of these states your impostor could earn you stiff fines and jail time, and in Florida the penalty further includes 30 hours of community service to an organization serving disabled people. More states are considering penalties as the problem of passing off fakes as the genuine article gains momentum.

If you see a dog you suspect is ‘posing’ as a service dog, speak to the management of the establishment rather than confronting the dog’s owner. You can also advise the management of their right to ask the owner whether the dog is trained as a service dog, and if so, what tasks the dog is trained to perform. If the dog is not a true service dog, the manager can ask the handler and dog to leave. The exception is an emotional support dog in a housing situation, on an airplane, and in educational institutions.

Can I Make My Dog a Service Dog?

Service dogs require specialized training. But while anybody can legally train a service dog, most dogs lack the chops. Service dog training is a tall order, and goes well beyond sensitizing the dog to his handler’s specific disability—tough enough in its own right—to include impeccable manners and the ability to remain calm in all situations. Preparing a service dog for the rigors of his work requires daily training for a solid year, or even two, and then continued ‘maintenance’ training for the balance of his life. So even if you love your dog and think he might make a good candidate as a service dog, chances are excellent he will fail: it takes an exceptional dog to meet those lofty standards. The best strategy is using a professional dog trainer—whether you attempt to train your own dog, or choose another dog. And a good trainer will be frank and honest about your dog’s service-worthiness.

An emotional support dog requires no specialized training, but must be well behaved, kept under control, and can’t cause harm or a disturbance at home or on an airplane. And while therapy dogs don’t require the same specialized training as service dogs, the best candidates for therapy work are calm, friendly, and affectionate, even around strangers. Therapy dogs should be healthy, clean, well groomed, and possess basic obedience skills. Therapy dog classes are recommended for handlers who wish to allow their dogs to help in situations where people might benefit from a dog’s presence.

Can I Pet Your Service Dog?

A service dog is not a pet. Not only shouldn’t you pet a service dog, but you shouldn’t talk to him, say his name, make eye contact with him, or otherwise attempt to get his attention. And why not? Because he’s busy at work keeping his handler safe. When you distract a service dog—by any means—you’re diverting his attention from the crucial job he was meant to perform. And if he misses a cue because you distracted him, and his person gets sick or injured, it’s your fault. Service dogs perform important work, including leading the blind, assisting compromised people with mobility and balance, picking up and placing items for wheelchair-bound people and even pulling their wheelchairs, alerting chronically ill people to impending seizures, a loss of consciousness, or a dip in blood sugar, and providing support for psychiatric conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So even when a service dog appears to be doing nothing, rest assured he’s hard at work and is best left alone to do his job.

What Happens if the Dog Misbehaves?

A disabled person might be asked to leave a business or establishment if their service dog behaves aggressively. However impeccably mannered, a service dog is still a dog, and any dog has the capacity to behave aggressively. When a handler experiences this with a dog, swift and immediate training is in order to correct the behavior. A dog removed from service could be catastrophic for his disabled handler; given that the dog already will have undergone rigorous training, hiring a professional trainer is the best strategy in this scenario. But no service dog can be removed from a business or venue, unless the dog is out of control or has not been housebroken.

Fake Service Dogs and Questionable People: The Problem With Posers

People with ill intent, and who know what they are doing, can satisfactorily answer the two ‘litmus’ questions outlined above and thus succeed at scamming the system: they don’t need to produce a shred of documentation for their ‘service’ dog, and can’t be denied access. It’s an irksome problem that hurts disabled people with real service dogs who legitimately rely on their working dogs to help them. But if you’re disabled and you’ve been denied access to an establishment with your service dog in tow, resources exist to help you fight discrimination

The bottom line: fake IDs and certificates can be bought, impeccable behavior can’t. With just a little bit of scrutiny, we’ll all know a real service dog when we see him.

7 thoughts on “Is That a Real Service Dog? (Or Is it Just Someone’s Pet?)”

  1. I have noticed this a lot. It makes it so unfair to people who really need a service dog. They are not pets, they are working dogs. The training is very intense and it should not be taken lightly. I have a comfort dog. She is great but I don’t take her everywhere.

  2. I have a service dog and fakes really do pose a problem when some little yap dog is pulling toward my dog and I have to correct him “on me.” He gets in trouble because they are there distracting him where they shouldn’t be. (By the way I think you have a typo because I’ve never heard of a dog being able to alert a stroke, maybe you meant seizure?)

  3. Where does one find a trainer to help make a dog a service dog for a person with seizures? I don’t even know where to begin!

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