Rules exist for a reason and when it comes to Service Dogs and Service Dog law, too many people have come to view them more as “guidelines.” Whether it’s someone who wishes they could take their dog everywhere or someone who has chosen to break the law by presenting their pet as a fake Service Dog, both actions cause damage and harm to the Service Dog and disabled community.
From time to time, when disabled Service Dog handlers or Service Dog trainers are out in public, they’re approached by someone with a wistful look and a story about how their dog would be “just perfect!” for Service Dog work. They wish they could take their dog everywhere, too, but there’s one problem: they don’t understand that the right to be accompanied by a fully-trained Service Dog comes with a cascading pile of problems no sane person would ever wish upon themselves.
Most people love their dogs, and usually, when someone tells a Service Dog team they meet in public that they’d like to know how to make their dog a Service Dog, their likely intent isn’t malicious or meant to be hurtful. Nonetheless, it’s a poorly thought-out aspiration. It’s similar to saying, “no offense,” before insulting someone. This issue is far more complex than it seems on the surface, especially when it comes to able-bodied people who actually carry out their wishes by faking Service Dog status with their pets. Read on to learn more about what you’re insinuating by wishing for a Service Dog if you’re not disabled, how masquerading pets as Service Dogs is not only extremely disrespectful, but also harmful, and some important points to consider about Service Dog partnership and the Service Dog community.
1] Service Dog Handlers Are Disabled.
First, per U.S. federal law and the ADA, Service Dog handlers must be disabled. Service Dogs perform tasks that their disabled owners would otherwise have difficulty completing on their own. If you do not have a disability, then you do not qualify for a Service Dog. Period. End of story. Full stop. There are no exceptions. By expressing a desire for a Service Dog, you’re also wishing for the accompanying disability. For a disabled person, hearing an able-bodied person openly wish for a disability (even if you don’t actually say those words) is deeply hurtful. It suggests you don’t take them or their disability seriously and furthermore, it makes light of the thousands of hours of training and socialization their partner has undergone to perform his job.
You’d never say, “Boy, I sure do I wish I had a wheelchair, walker, cane, crutch, oxygen tank, or prosthetic leg to take with me everywhere!” Wishing you had a Service Dog is exactly the same.
You would never approach someone with a cane and enthusiastically remark, “Nice cane! Hey, you know, I’ve got a stick at home. Do you think I could make it into a cane? I’d just LOVE to use a cane everywhere I went just like you; I really think it’d be perfect to use all the time! Come to think of it, that’s a really rad limp. I wish I had a mobility impairment that awesome. Tell me, what’s it like to fall down all the time and to always live in fear of losing your balance? I bet it’s just so epic; I can’t help but wish it were me!”
Think carefully. When was the last time you heard someone say or you’ve said any of the following, either out loud or to another person?
- “Man, I wish I were deaf!”
- “Too bad I don’t have severe balance and mobility problems!”
- “Being visually impaired is SO COOL. Wish I were that way.”
- “I’d love if my blood sugar was entirely unpredictable and fluctuated without warning to the point of possible death. That sounds like fun!”
- “My life would be so much better if I were forced to face crushing panic attacks and flashbacks every time I set foot out of my front door.”
- “If I could have debilitating seizures, you’d bettered believe I would!”
Seems a little ludicrous when presented in that light, doesn’t it? Furthermore, when you consider how Service Dogs are actually classified (as disability-mitigating medical equipment), the sentiment, “I wish I could have a Service Dog!” or “How do I make my dog a Service Dog so they can go everywhere with me?” becomes even more outlandish. If someone ever did that, the following responses or reactions from the other party wouldn’t be at all considered out of place:
There’s a simple solution to this problem: say what you mean, and mean what you say. If you have questions about Service Dogs or about the job Service Dogs perform, ask them, as long as the question isn’t, “How can I make my pet a Service Dog?” or “How can I take my dog everywhere, too?” The answer to those questions, unless you’re disabled and your dog possesses the aptitude for Service Dog work, is ALWAYS: You can’t. No equipment, vest, harness, special leash, ID card, “Do Not Pet Me” patches or anything else can make your dog a Service Dog unless you’re disabled and your dog has been specifically trained to perform tasks or work that you would otherwise have difficulty completing due to your disability. If all of that isn’t true, then it’s ILLEGAL.
2 ] Service Dog Handlers Are Frequently Greeted With Judgement
Secondly, Service Dog handlers are often greeted by judgement and conflict — sometimes from the public, sometimes from friends and family, and occasionally, even from other Service Dog handlers. Service Dog handlers are regularly forced into confrontations concerning their canine partner’s access rights. Even though U.S. federal law is very clear concerning a disabled handler’s right to have their Service Dog accompany them in public. Many handlers, especially in smaller towns or more rural areas, face recurrent skirmishes.
From the “What’s wrong with you?” questions to, “Show me his papers,” life with a Service Dog is rarely smooth. When you blithely announce, “I wish my dog were a Service Dog,” let alone fake Service Dog status or claim your pet is an Assistance Animal, you’re not only making light of the discord faced by the Service Dog community, but also the hassle, lack of privacy, judgement, strife — and sometimes outright hostility — that accompanies Service Dog partners.
Fake Service Dogs only contribute to this problem. Dogs exhibiting poor training, manners or behavior while marching under the “Service Dog” banner cause everyone who came into contact with them to view the next team they meet, even if it’s the best SD team on Earth, with suspicion and judgement.
Under the law, people have rights. Dogs do not. A Service Dog without its disabled partner is just a dog.
3] Service Dog Handlers Have Difficulty Functioning in Daily Life Without Their Dog
Individuals with a disability who partner with a Service Dog require their dog in order to gain an additional degree of independence and functioning they would not otherwise possess. Their canine partner is not merely “company” or a “companion.” If you are not disabled and your dog does not have a fixed set of duties performed to diminish the impact of that disability, your dog is not a Service Dog.
Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs often confused with Service Dogs. Learn about other important types of working dogs here who do great work, but aren’t Service Dogs and who have no public access rights granted by federal law.
4 ] Service Dogs Undergo Hundreds, If Not Thousands, of Hours of Specialized Training
Being a Service Dog is hard work. It requires a specific, rare temperament, an aptitude for training, serving and learning and a degree of stability most dogs simply don’t possess. Beyond that, though, Service Dogs require hundreds of hours of socialization, public access training, basic obedience training and advanced training for their task work.
Even exceptionally skilled pet dogs rarely possess the degree of training most Service Dogs undergo and claiming your pet, no matter how fabulous he may be, is a Service Dog is like graduating from high school or community college and proudly waltzing around claiming you’re a doctor. Both sets of actions are misleading, highly illegal and fraudulent. Don’t mock a Service Dog’s hard-earned skills by misrepresenting yourself or your dog OR by making comments like, “Well, all he’d need is a vest and then I could take him everywhere, too, right?”
5 ] “Fake” Service Dogs Do Serious Damage to the Service Dog Community
Imagine you’re sitting in a coffee shop, enjoying a good book and a hot drink when suddenly, the peace is broken by a woman and her loudly complaining dog entering the business. The noise is constant, high-pitched and without pause. The manager approaches and informs the woman that pets aren’t allowed, but she breezily waves the manager off with, “Oh, she’s a Service Dog.” The dog jumps on the counter while the lady is ordering and growls at the barista — and when she gets her table she feeds the dog part of her cookie.
After an experience like that, what will you think the next time you see someone with a Service Dog? Of course, you’ll be wary and suspicious. If you’re a business owner, you may even ask the team to leave. The experience tarnished your view of Service Dogs but more importantly, it may cause lasting difficulties for other teams that follow in their wake. Additionally, that damage is massively exponential if the story becomes news. Every person who reads the story or watches the report will be affected by it. Every incident involving a “Service Dog” that’s negative casts a shadow on the entire community.
6 ] Distracted Service Dogs Can Result in Hurt Handlers.
Real Service Dogs are doing work for their handler. They’re not just hanging out. Even if it doesn’t look like they’re doing work to you, they are. If there’s a dog around who isn’t trained for public access work, they’re probably going to be a distraction. The same goes for people who intrude on the team’s right to work and be in public without interference. If a dog is meant to be continuously scanning for their handler’s drop in blood sugar and they’re not because a poorly trained dog who shouldn’t be in public has pounced on them and the Service Dog is struggling to perform their job as a result, it’s entirely possible the Service Dog could miss a drop and their handler end up sick. If a person is relying on their canine person for balance and mobility support and the Service Dog is accosted by a person with an out-of-control canine imposter, the Service Dog’s person could fall and be injured.
When/If a person fraudulently takes their pet with them as a “Service Dog,” the pet dog could distract or harm a true Service Dog, which could result in injury to the Service Dog’s person. In the United States, most states have laws that protect both the individual and the Service Dog if harm is done or the team is knowingly interfered with and the crime is punishable by law.
7 ] The Media — and Well-Intentioned People — Can Do the Most Harm
Most people will never encounter Service Dog. However, the degree of suspicion Service Dog teams face is further complicated by well-meaning — but ultimately hurtful — news, blog or social media stories that give the public the impression society is being overrun by fake Service Dogs. The unintended effect is causing the public to be suspicious of every Service Dog team they meet. While one poorly behaved animal in a restaurant can create a bad impression for 20 people, a story or social media post about the event will exponentially create a bad impression with hundreds or thousands — or millions — of people. The effect is exponential.
While people who fake Service Dogs are a very real problem, the only surefire way to easily identify imposters is by their dog’s unacceptable behavior. When it comes to fake Service Dogs, actions speak louder than words. Under the law, Service Dog handlers are to be taken at their word. This allows individuals of questionable ethics to skirt the law, but telling them apart from legit Service Dog teams is simple. Real Service Dog manners, behavior and training cannot be faked.
Think twice before making blanket statements about fake Service Dogs. While you’re trying to help, you may actually be doing more damage than you think. It’s far more helpful to make statements like these:
- There are no papers, documents, certifications, vests, tags or special IDs required for Service Dogs in the United States. Under federal law, disabled individuals accompanied by Service Dogs are allowed access to places selling goods or services of any kind, including places offering entertainment, lodging and food.
- Fake Service Dogs can often be identified by their lack of manners, obvious lack of training and ill behavior. If a “Service Dog” is interrupting a business’ daily operation with its behavior, it’s a danger to anyone or its conduct is NOT conduct acceptable in a Service Dog (barking, growling, stealing food from other clients, knocking people over, jumping, or many other behaviors), by law, the manager or business owner has every right to ask the person to remove the dog from the premises, “Service Dog” or not.
- There are many different types of disabilities, and there are many different types of Service Dogs. You can’t determine if a Service Dog is “real” based on sight alone. Service Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. The only indicator that team is “legit” is the dog’s behavior. Service Dogs are well-trained, well-mannered, calm, unobtrusive and handler focused.
As a result of the public self-appointing themselves as members of the “Service Dog police” and the media’s sweeping statements concerning the Service Dog community, all SD handlers, especially those with invisible disabilities like hearing loss, diabetes, PTSD or a seizure disorder, face a sense of distrust from bystanders, business owners and the public that is sometimes palatable. Handlers frequently face silent stares, pointed digs or inquiries, outright invasion of privacy and many other difficulties. You know that feeling you get when you walk in a room, it goes quiet and you feel like everyone is staring at you? Well, for many disabled handlers with Service Dogs, that’s an everyday reality. Imagine encountering this almost everywhere you go. Please do not make light of the requirements and difficulties of Service Dog partnership, because when you do, this is the contribution you’re making:
As more people learn that Service Dogs can help with a wide range of disabilities, both visible and invisible, as more trainers become knowledgeable about providing proper training, the numbers of Service Dogs will rise. Under the law, two things mark a dog as a Service Dog:
- Being specially trained to perform specific tasks or work that a disabled handler would otherwise have difficulty completing
- Partnership with an individual who has a disability
That’s it. There is no secret formula, required certifications/paperwork/documentation, or voodoo magic that makes a dog a Service Dog. Vests and patches don’t do it, and no level of training does it without the handler having an accompanying disability. Now, there are requirements a dog should meet before being considered for Service Dog work, but those are the only two legally-mandated requirements for Service Dog designation.
The message here is simple: don’t fake Service Dog status. Don’t make light of a disabled individual’s history or circumstances. Don’t make a mockery of the work that goes into shaping a Service Dog. Don’t make universal judgements or statements, and don’t think you can identify a Service Dog in any way besides their behavior. Think before you act or speak, and the Service Dog community will be a better place.
Our goal with this article isn’t to point any fingers, name names or do anything except provide a reality check to those who consider faking Service Dog status with their pets to be acceptable. It’s not. Period. “Taking your dog with you everywhere” carries a lot of weight, responsibility and repercussions. Wishing for it nonchalantly or with a casual attitude not only makes light of alternately-abled people everywhere, but also demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding concerning the realities of life with a Service Dog. We recognize this article is likely to offend some people and if you’re one of them, you probably shouldn’t be claiming your pet is a Service Dog. If you’re one of those who likes to longingly wish you had a Service Dog and share that desire with every Service Dog team you meet, please recognize that behavior can be hurtful. Our only wish for you is that you think about both what you’re saying with words and what you’re implying with the statement.
Service Dog handlers and members of the non-Service Dog-partnered public, we’d like to hear from you. Is there something we left out or something you’d like to add? Chime in with a comment.