Not all dogs wearing service dog vests are genuine. In our modern society there are a huge variety of different types of service and assistance dogs. Not only are there guide dogs for the blind, but also alerting dogs for those with a hearing deficit. To name a few other types of service dogs we have handicapped assistance dogs which help with mobility problems, as well as dogs that warn that there is an oncoming seizure, dogs that signal changes in insulin levels, and even others that detect the presence of specific allergens. In addition, some dogs provide psychological support for individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder and for individuals with various emotional and mental problems. In the US alone, it is estimated that more than 50,000 people rely on their service dogs to help them get through the day. However, there appears to be a rising threat to the credibility and acceptance of such service dogs because some people are trying to pass off their untrained pets as assistance dogs.
Let us take a closer look at the social status of service dogs. In recognition of the valuable service that such dogs provide, many countries have passed legislation that not only allows such dogs to accompany a person who needs their help, but also makes it illegal for places of business (including restaurants, theaters and retail stores), or for public accommodations (including hotels and rental properties), to deny access to a person with a service dog. This is where the problem begins to arise. Obviously many people would like to have their pets accompany them when they go to various places where dogs are usually banned. The way around this is to palm off their pet as a service dog. It turns out that it is remarkably easy to do so. You do not need a doctor's note which says that you have a disability. All you need to do is to slap a vest onto your dog with a label or patch which says "service dog" (these can easily be purchased online starting at around $20), or to hang a prominent plastic or metal tag that says service or assistance dog on his collar, or buy a meaningless "registration certificate" or "service dog identification card". All of this will material is readily available from a number of self-proclaimed service dog registries. These registries do not require any evidence that your dog has been specially trained nor that you yourself have any form of disability that requires the assistance of a service dog. Their only requirement seems to be a valid credit card number for the purchase of the identification materials. For legitimate service dogs none of this is actually necessary. Although the legislation may vary from one country to another, most that I have looked at are relatively similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US. This act does not require any form of identification for a service dog (no vest, no card) nor does it require that the person provide any evidence of disability. In fact some readings of the legislation suggest that demanding such materials may actually constitute an offense. However it is highly unlikely that a dog wearing a bright vest claiming that it is an assistance dog will be challenged in any event.
Over the past few months I have seen a number of ways in which the regulations surrounding service dogs are being abused. Let me just give you a few examples from my own recent experiences.
At a dog-related social event I stopped to say hello to a person who I knew. The group that she was standing with included several other people and an animated discussion was going on between one woman in her 60s and a much younger woman. The older woman had been complaining that because the building that she was living in had been slated for demolition she was now looking for a new apartment. Unfortunately she was having a difficult time finding a new residence since, when potential landlords found out that she owned a Rottweiler, she was informed that she was not welcome. Most managers simply told her that dogs were banned in their rental units. The younger woman smiled and said, "There is an easy solution to that problem. Just go online and get one of those assistance dog vests and then tell the owner that your dog is a service dog. Once you do that they are not allowed to forbid you from renting an apartment in their building."
Other people try to take advantage of the service dog regulations for more frivolous reasons, such as using the law to allow them to bring their dogs along when they go to places where their pets might otherwise be forbidden. For instance I was sitting in the Seattle Airport waiting for a plane when a woman arrived with a small Pomeranian wearing an orange "Therapy Dog" vest. The dog was obviously not under control, jumping up on anyone who got close to him, and at one point stopping to urinate on the edge of one of the chairs. No one at the check-in desk challenged the presence of the dog. When the boarding announcement was made, the woman scooped the dog up and put it in a soft carrying case that hung from her shoulder. She then boarded the plane without any comment from the airline staff. While I did not talk to the woman directly, the situation appeared to be very suspicious to me. According to the ADA legislation, in order to be classified as a service dog with full public access a dog must fulfill three qualifications: 1) it must specifically be trained to perform tasks that mitigate the handlers disability; 2) be accompanied by a person with a physical, mental, developmental, or other disability; 3) be housetrained and under the control of the handler. Furthermore, under the act certain useful working dogs do not qualify. For example therapy dogs do a valuable job by providing unconditional love, understanding, and social companionship anywhere they are needed. These are typically obedient, sweet-natured, calm dogs that are first and foremost pets. Although they do provide psychological assistance and consolation, therapy dogs are not specifically trained for that job. The same goes for emotional support animals, who also are supposed to work with an individual who needs comfort, but again such dogs require no specialized training. Neither therapy dogs (which the Pomeranian's vest announced that it was) nor emotional support dogs have any right to special access to public places according to the way in which the ADA was written. This particular incident reminded me of another person I know who brings his Boston Terrier to work with him every day. On his way home he likes to stop for a drink in a nearby pub that prohibits dogs. Because he wanted his pet's companionship while he socialized, he used one of those online registries to purchase a card which declared that his dog was an "Emotional Support Dog". He then showed the card to the bartender and since that time he has been granted the right to have his dog sit with him while he shares a pint of beer with his friends at the end of the work day.
Just one more case might be mentioned. I spoke with a man who has a brother who lives in Dade County, Florida. Apparently there are breed-specific laws in that region which are designed to limit ownership of pitbull-type dogs. He explained to me that his brother owned a Staffordshire Terrier, which was on the banned list. However his brother obtained a service dog vest from an online vendor, and now he openly walks the dog through the streets. Furthermore his dog now accompanies him when he goes into the various stores and restaurants that he habitually uses. My acquaintance laughed when he told me that his brother had found the "loophole" which allows him to keep his restricted dog in plain sight without any muzzle or additional restraint and without any fear of legal consequences. He said, "Everyone knows that federal law trumps local and state laws. So my brother gets to keep his dog and no one gets to complain."
The problem with people who are using such "loopholes" and are passing their pets off as service dogs is what happens if these counterfeits are not under full control—if they are unmanageable, not fully housebroken, or bothersome to others around them. When this occurs the behaviors of these bogus assistance dogs will reflect negatively on all of the legitimate service dogs that have been well trained and serve important functions. Ultimately if enough of these "service dog imposters" appear, it may result in a backlash which will limit public access for the assistance dogs which are actually trained and truly needed by people who really have problems.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission