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August 3-9 is National Assistance Dog Week – a week set aside to honor the over 20,000 dogs nationwide who help their humans overcome disabilities by working as Guide, Hearing and Service Dogs.  These dogs are specially trained, sometimes from birth, to help people navigate specific issues such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, and PTSD, to name a few.  The people who rely on these dogs on a daily basis often say that without them, they would not be able to function.  But for the past several years a disturbing trend has taken root that threatens these dogs and their human charges: fake service dogs.

In order to take their dogs to places they wouldn’t normally be allowed to go (hotels, restaurants, airplanes, etc.) owners have been obtaining fake service credentials and passing their pets off as service animals.  For $20-$70, you can purchase certificates, patches, vests, you name it – everything you need to pass your dog off as a legitimate service dog.  Why is this a big deal?  For one thing, it’s illegal.

The Americans With Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person  with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person  with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or  performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets.  The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

It’s also unethical. Real service dogs are carefully trained to be fully disciplined when they are working in public.  A real service dog will never bite, lick or interact with any human that is not their charge (and the general public is encouraged not interact with them, either).  They are well-behaved, quiet and practically invisible.  They are working.

Service dogs should not be distracted.

A “fake” service dog has no such discipline or training. They will do everything you would expect a “normal” dog to do:  bark, eliminate, scavenge… they have even been known to attack real service dogs and bite and maul people.  These imposters go about their antics in fake credentials, giving legitimate service dogs and their handlers a bad name.  This spells trouble when businesses, which are required by law to give access to service dogs, don’t believe their authenticity.

A real Service Dog would never help himself to your dinner. Photo courtesy NY Post: Brian Zak

This recently happened to Sydney Corcoran, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, when she was shopping with her service dog in a New Hampshire T.J. Maxx.  The manager of the store didn’t believe Koda was a service dog and Sydney was ordered to put Koda in a cart or leave the store.

Sydney Corcoran’s PTSD service dog, Koda. Photo courtesy of WCVB.

Despite it being a criminal offense to falsify the qualifications of a service dog (in California, fraudulently passing your dog off as a service dog is punishable by a fine or imprisonment) people still do it because the law is hard to enforce.  At the moment, the only two questions that businesses are lawfully allowed to ask are:  1.)  Is that a service dog?; and 2.) What tasks is it trained to perform?  They cannot lawfully demand proof, which is why businesses are increasingly wary of dogs wearing service credentials.

Hard-working, legitimate service dogs deserve our respect, and their owners should not have to go about their lives under a cloud of suspicion.  But until stricter regulations are passed and enforced, the reputations of real service dogs will continue to be tarnished.

Have you ever seen a fake service dog?  What do you think should be done to discourage this practice?

http://blog.adoptandshop.org/national-assistance-dog-week-service-dogs/