Pets posing as service dogs make life tough for people who really need animals’ help

by Sue on December 11, 2013

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From the time they’re puppies, service dogs are rigorously trained to help those who need them most. They can get into places where no pets are allowed.

The dogs are identified by the vest they wear. But since it’s not illegal to buy these vets, it’s easy for anyone to go online and obtain a vest for their animal.

Susan Lee Vick, director of Canine Companions for Independence, demonstrated how easy it is to obtain one. “There’s a real faux official quality to this, you know?” she said, showing a photo of a tiny dog wearing a service vest. “This is Bambi; Bambi’s new service dog vest!”

She said it never occurred to advocates for the disabled that the vests would be misused.

“There was never any vision of this outcome, this just sort of explosion of the ‘have a vest, wear a vest, go anywhere you want with your pet,’ no one saw that,” Vick said.

Peter Morgan has a spinal disorder that makes it nearly impossible for him to bend. He teaches kids with special needs, with his service dog Echuka constantly at the ready. His disability isn’t very obvious to strangers. Morgan says no one had ever doubted his need for a service dog — until recently.

“The last two years, it’s become very prevalent. The questioning, the looks. It’s been a radical shift,” he said.

And now he sees fake service dogs in places where pets aren’t normally allowed. At a recent dinner out, Morgan said, there was another dog in the restaurant.

“Even to the casual observer you could tell it was not a service dog,” Morgan said. “It had a vest. It was eating off the floor, licking people, lunging at people.”

Then, Morgan said, the dog’s owner pulled him aside.

“And he started saying, ‘It’s really neat that we can bring these dogs in here and get away with it because, you know, my dog’s not a service dog and neither is yours.’ And I just turned to him and I said, ‘You have absolutely no idea what you’re doing,’ ” Morgan said.

There’s a growing call to penalize people who try to pass off their pets as service dogs. But few agree on how it should be enforced.

Advocates for the disabled say the problem may just be ignorance.

“They don’t realize the harm that they are doing,” Vick said of the impostors. “Bringing your pet dog out into a public place harms that person with a disability’s right to live a free and independent life.”

Morgan says he’s been kicked out of restaurants when other dogs act up because people suspect his service dog is a fake.

“The people that are actually doing this should really take a long deep breath and think about how they’re affecting less abled people than themselves,” he said.

That, he said, would provide the most valuable service.



NOTE FROM SUSSIE: How can they enforce it? For the ADA/DOJ to allow companies like ourselves to ask for a Doctor’s note before we sell them a product. Until that happens, our hands are tied.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sue 12.16.13 at 7:30 am

Have you seen the ad on T.V. that has a dog is strapped to T.V.s like a service dog, to get a beer, and not miss the football action. Shame on the company, thats one reason people that have a service dog dont get the respect they should have. Yes I have a service dog, She saved my life.

2 Chris 12.16.13 at 7:44 am

Just several thoughts.1. I always carry not only MY dr note stating need for the dog, I carry all the vet documents, one of which states my dog (name) is fit for duty. 2. note the ADA does NOT require any marking on the service dog!!! many older single women feel vulnerable displaying a service dog in any kind of cape or vest (esp. if it is a small dog, i.e. for diabetic seizures, or epileptic seizures) because it draws attention to the person as weak. 3. I disagree that the ONLY way to solve the problem is to require a dr note to buy id for the dog, see my comment #2. Instead, I would have had management remove the fake dog. I also advocate and educate where ever I can, with my own dog. I believe education to the public is the answer. None of us wants to lose our dog’s focus on us, but taking time from our busy lives to explain laws and needs to anyone polite enough to ask is the solution. For every ONE person we can leave a positive impression on, with the correct information, we potentially educate their entire family and group of friends. Try it!!

3 Chris G. 12.16.13 at 7:55 am

I disagree. 1. The ADA does NOT require service dogs to be marked in any way. No capes/vests are required. I personally carry my own dr. note, plus all info on my dog from the vet, including a letter stating his (name) is fit for duty. 2. Many older single women are reluctant to id their small service dogs, which are usually for diabetic sugar drops, or epileptic seizures, because they say it makes them an easy mark or seen as weak, easy prey to thugs. 3. I know that most of us are reluctant to share the real reason for our dogs, (HIPPA violation) but I believe in education/advocating as the best method to prevent the fakes. Think about it. For every ONE person you teach the laws etc. to, you affect possibly their family and entire group of friends. Try it!! and finally 4. I would have immediately asked the manager of that restaurant to remove the fake dog.

4 sherlei 12.16.13 at 9:45 am

A doc note would violate privacy can u ask to see proof of disability income they could black out soc number and other personal but name and say proof of check

5 Junk Bin 12.16.13 at 10:00 am

The dogs are identified by the vest they wear. Now where does it state in the ADA that the dog needs to advertise a person is infirm in some way???
Please only state actual facts. We have enough problems without disinformation.
There is a legal remedy for the false presentation. Press criminal charges. It is the law.
As to the assumption that some other dog is not a service dog, BE CAREFUL in arrogant judgement

6 Patch Guglielmino 12.16.13 at 10:31 am

I have a service dog that I couldn’t live without. She is a life saver and I trained her. She is certified and carries a yearly letter from my doctor saying that she is necessary. I have an anxiety disorder and the dog is trained to alert me before it becomes something I can’t handle. Her presence with me in large crowds or malls keeps me grounded and I don’t get flashbacks. I have serious PTSD from working as a first responder at the World Trade Center. God save this dog and I thank him every day for bringing her into my life. I think the stores should be allowed to see the letter and some identification if necessary. I realize it is just more control but because of the thoughtless people who find it fun to do this have to realize it is serious.

7 Cynthia Miller 12.16.13 at 10:58 am

If we kept a wallet tag from a DR. note. This would insure that real people with a disability would be tagged. Like my parking tag for disabled parking. Each state has one. This would solve the problem. Spot would be able to print a dog tag with a special mark on the corner of the tag. people could have a patch on the vest. I feel this would stop folks that are not disabled to stop making it worse for us.
Only assigned stores like yours can make them!

8 Bill McNicholas 12.16.13 at 11:39 am

I have a Service Dog prescribed by the VA for my PTSD. The County of Marin, CA, has a registration and license for Service Dogs in the County. I carry the tag in my wallet so I have it with me at all times in case I am questioned. Maybe more registration is needed.

I know when I registered my dog, I had to submit the prescription, training and vet documentation before I received by Service Dog Registration documents.

9 GypsyGirl 12.16.13 at 1:35 pm

Thankfully I haven’t run into this issue often, but on occasion. I try to calmly help educate people on the rigorous training each dog goes through and the vast difference in tasks each animal is taught to preform. I’ve mostly found that people are curious and interested to know these details.

10 Suzy 12.16.13 at 2:40 pm

I don’t know how to stop the fakes. In my area it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem, however I was shocked when a friend of mine said he wanted to order a vest so he could take his tiny ankle biter with him wherever he went. I did explain the harm on that and that I would be the one that would report him if he did, as it would harm my credibility with my service dog in training, Kubota, and any other legitimate teams. However, having to get a note from a doctor is also a pain in the neck. Being on disability, I’m on a limited income as I am certain many with service dogs are. Many doctors charge $10 – $25 just to fill out a form. Although, expenses associated with service dogs are tax deductible, that extra charge to get the doctors note can still be a hardship for the teams already out there. I suppose new teams could make copies of the initial forms that physicians fill out and provide to agencies supplying the dogs in the first place (i.e. the service dog agency). However, this will not solve the problem for those individuals who choose to train their own dog.

11 Dave and Gracie 12.16.13 at 4:07 pm

Hi Sussie,

I’ve contributed to your Service Dog Blog for several years. My life has been greatly enhanced by my Service Dog, Gracie.

Gracie has a response to anyone who would attempt to prevent a person with a disability and their Service Dog from entering their space.

“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”

12 Dodge 12.17.13 at 3:40 am

This seems to be an ongoing problem of whether a person trying to enter a place of business has a “real” service animal. I think the American Disabilities Act of 1990 is very well written and doesn’t need any other laws added to it. To do so would only create unnecessary bureaucracy–and we already have too much of that!

Maybe we need to define a service dog: Of course, a dog that services the handler’s disability is mandatory, but that is only one half of the coin–that is not a “true” service dog. The dog must also know how to properly act in the “human environment.”

How I see it, if a dog truly serves a person in his/her disability, but the dog is not well behaved, the business (restaurant, grocery store, department store, etc.) has the right to ask the handler to remove the dog. On the other hand, if the dog is a “fake” service animal, but is very well behaved, then what does it matter if the dog stays? I realize this might make many people cringe at the thought that someone might be getting away with something–but what I like about this position is that it takes away the problem of trying to figure out if the person really has a disability and whether the dog is a true service dog. The business just has to observe if the handler and dog are displaying proper “service dog etiquette!”

I really appreciate this blog that allows us to share ideas and concerns. Maybe we can use this site to define fully how a handler and service dog should properly act in a business. Some of the business owners are just jerks or are ignorant of the law, but I believe the vast majority just have concerns of how the dog will affect their business. For instance, is the dog well groomed? Is the dog aggressive? There was an instance where a customer tripped over someone’s dog and sued the business! The handler needs to keep these things in mind. A service dog should absolutely not be eating in a restaurant! That’s disgusting!

I would like to invite owners, managers, and employees of different businesses to share their concerns about dogs being in their establishment. And how the service dog community can work with them to create a friendly relationship.

13 Randi Harry 12.17.13 at 10:22 pm

I have been targeted repeatedly because my service dog is very small and is carried in a sling over my shoulder. Unfortunately, my previous (professionally trained) service dog (for panic attacks) passed away almost a year ago. I decided to use a professional trainer (not necessarily a service dog expert), with my own help, to train my current dog. She is perfect when it comes to alerting me to an oncoming panic attack, and she is perfectly behaved whenever she is “working”. However, my previous service dog weighed 4 and a half pounds and it was no problem to carry her all the time – my current service dog got to be much larger than expected (7 and half pounds), so I have begun to walk her on a leash when possible to save my back and shoulders. When I walk her, even with her vest, I have been subjected to ignorant civilians making comments like “sure, that’s a service dog”. Even the entry people at restaurants, concerts (we do protect her ears) and other venues have given me grief (when she was IN HER CARRIER, WEARING HER VEST, AND I HAVE SHOWN HER ID). I even carry a photocopy of a letter from my physician. I would appreciate any suggestions on how to respond when a dog that isn’t the expected size and shape is a legitimate service dog. (For the most part, I have found that if you get to the manager or the right, properly trained security person, it works out OK.) If anyone has suggestions about how to politely but firmly respond when a dog that is obviously not trained is “passed off” as a service dog, it would be helpful to me. As I’m sure it is of concern to everyone who has a legitimate service dog, we are all at risk when someone tries to pass off an untrained pet as a service dog – but it isn’t my job to challenge someone like that, who may have a legitimate disability but whose legitimate dog is having “a bad day”. Any thoughts?

14 gay 12.18.13 at 9:51 am

I have back problems too. Can’t bend fall a lot. My service dog was trained by us. He picks up anything I ask him to. Helps me up when I fall. I use a cane he will bring me my cane. I think this article is wrong. Yes some people abuse it. But for people who have trained their own dogs. They should not be lumped in with the abusers. Shame on you.

15 Ellen 01.01.14 at 12:42 am

I trained my girl and she could pass the Public Access Test if there was someone around who could have the authority to give it. That being said, no one has ever questioned us. In fact, where I live, fake SDs are so bad, people will talk to me about the problems they have had. One sales person actually said as we were passing, “now that is a real service dog”.
Another, I printed out the ADA and California rules too as they thought they could do nothing about the fakes. We have encountered two aggressive dogs. I have even been welcomed at the VA where the rules state that the SD has to be ADI certified.

16 Suzy 05.20.14 at 9:14 am

It infuriated me the other day when I heard from a clerk that some non-service dogs had been coming into Target. He followed his statement by saying but your dog is much better behaved then theirs were (and my dog seemed less responsive to me then usual, and is still in the process of becoming certified). I ask him why he didn’t ask the other owner to take the misbehaving dog out of the store. I further had to explain that allowing non-service dogs into the store isn’t safe for those there or for true service dogs. He said he didn’t know he could ask them to leave.

I think educating the public is necessary on order to have faux service dogs be less of a problem. Simply getting a note to flash isn’t the answer. Although my rheumatologist understood why I wanted to get a service dog on the first place, my general internal medicine doctor was uneducated as to what all a service dog could do for me. Yet, he is the one that signed the paperwork when I filled out applications to get my dog’ I had him fill the forms out because he was the most knowledgeable of my complete medical condition. However, I got the feeling that if I hadn’t fully explained the need for the dog I could have gotten him to sign a script to flash just because he is a fellow dog lover.

I think it is sad people take advantage of the laws surrounding service dogs. My older dog which I’ve had for 11 years, does many of the things my service dog does for me. Much as I’d love her to assist me when my service dog isn’t feeling well or is out at the trainers, I’d never attempt to pass her off as a service dog (although she has impeccable manners) as she has only been trained for home use, she has never had the public access training necessary.

17 Patch Guglielmino 05.26.14 at 9:09 am

I think it should be allowed to ask for our paperwork and tag from Animal Control. I am very weary of people who lie. They make it difficult for all of us. I work in a hospital and you wouldn’t believe the animals that come in under the guise of being a service animal when they obviously are not. They are not trained and don’t even obey. Everyone at the hospital is afraid to ask any questions. This needs to be changed to protect us who use these animals.

18 Steven Z 02.23.15 at 8:37 pm

My service dog, a 53 lb standard poodle named Sabaca (Russian for dog) draws a lot of attention. Well behaved, I use her as an ambassador for Service Dogs with the public.
Recently I was asked why she does not wear a vest. My reply “Why should I advertise that I am disabled?” She does wear her Service Dog tag which stops most problems before they start. All most all think that makes her “legal”. That often leads to a talk about the law, etc.
Some managers ask about fake service dogs. That one is easy, watch how the dog behaves with the handler, I tell them. And that they can ask any dog to be removed if acting badly, aggressive, barking, etc.
Most did not know they could ask the dog to be removed if acting badly. Most do not know that.
A nice calm talk handles almost all situations. If I have to get tough, I give them the number for the feds and tell them to call that before they call the police , so they know what I will do if it goes further. So far that has handled all I have run into.
More requirements no thank you!
By the way when I turned 65 social security changed my status from Disabled to Retired. No problems so far and have Dr info to back it up.
Ah yes VA. They decided to not award disabled in my case. Guess my PTS was not bad enough in their opinion. But the Feds did, well till age 65 anyway. So I also keep the papers from when I was younger and they awarded the classification of 100% disabled. I have not changed, they just changed it for their stats. LOL
So most know me here as the owner of the beautiful service dog named Sabaca. Works for me.

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