Animal Advocate: Is Your ‘Service Dog’ a Fake? Shame on You

Jennifer Clarke
By Jennifer Clarke September 15, 2015 01:00

trained service animals only signYou may have seen them without realizing it. Wearing vests proclaiming they are “service animals,” they accompany their owners into stores, restaurants, planes and other areas where dogs are normally not allowed.

Yet you can’t tell what service these animals are providing and may notice they bark, pull at their leashes, sniff, lick and generally don’t seem very well trained.

What you probably saw was an impostor: a dog that has no training with an owner who needs no services.

This fraud has been on the rise for several years. Deceitful individuals buy bogus vests and certificates – available with no questions asked from numerous Internet sites – so they can take their untrained dogs anywhere.

Predictably, these animals often create problems for business owners and their customers.

But do you know who is most harmed by impostors? Those who are truly disabled and must have their real service animal with them. Ill-mannered fakers can give genuine service animals a bad name.

The problem has become so widespread that Guide Dogs for the Blind held a class on the subject at an animal care conference I recently attended. One of the presenters, a legally blind woman with a guide dog, said a cab driver at first refused to let her dog in his car because of his bad experiences with impostors.

Law defines a service animal as a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a disabled client. Examples are guide dogs, hearing-alert dogs, medical-alert dogs and dogs which can pull wheelchairs or fetch items for the disabled.

Real service animals are legal extensions of their disabled owners.  They have right of access to public places and housing, and can fly free. If a business denies such a dog access, it is by law excluding the person as well – which can result in thousands of dollars in fines for the merchant.

Service dogs may only be excluded from a business if they are a threat to the health and safety of others.

So how do you tell the real deal from a canine impostor?

In the interests of privacy, business owners legally may ask owners only two questions:

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

Registration is not required, but in California, animal control departments like ours issue service-dog tags to owners who sign affidavits acknowledging that passing an untrained pet off as a service dog is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Applicants also must tell us what tasks their service dogs do, but they need not demonstrate it. So although we do our best to issue tags only to bona fide service animals, there is no guarantee.

Confusing the issue further are Emotional Support Animals, which give comfort to owners who often have mental health issues. Dogs, cats, birds, pigs and many other animals can be ESAs. These animals do not have access rights, and businesses may exclude them. But with a letter from a medical professional, they may by law fly on commercial airliners.

My advice? Call Animal Control if you see a dog in a shop or restaurant barking uncontrollably, relieving itself or aggressively bothering customers. It well could be an impostor.  But if you only suspect that someone’s service dog is an untrained pet, you could be sued by its owner for asking too many questions of a disabled person.

There have been movements to establish national ID cards for bona fide service dogs or a registry of handicapped persons with such dogs. But largely due to privacy concerns, none has come to fruition.

This puts businesses in an untenable position. Although it is often easy to tell the difference between a highly trained service animal and a pet dog with a fake ID, many merchants let the impostors in rather than risk lawsuits.

So at least for now, the responsibility is on pet owners. They must realize that it is critical for disabled persons to have their service animals with them and that it is not at all necessary for Joe or Jane Citizen to bring Fido when they go shopping or dining.

Having a fake service animal is like parking your car in a handicap space.  Shame alone should deter such behavior, but these perpetrators have no shame.

So – and this is the real shame – it just might take someone getting hurt or injured by one of these impostor service dogs to bring a crackdown on the practice.

Jennifer Clarke manages the Tuolumne County Animal Control Department.

Andy’s the Real Deal

FAN is following this young Lab’s journey to become a guide dog for the blind. Read about Andy’s progress with volunteer trainer Jean Jones and see more fun photos online in the Readers’ Journal section of seniorfan.com.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Jennifer Clarke
By Jennifer Clarke September 15, 2015 01:00
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