Dogs & Laws

Fake Service Dogs Are a Real Problem

While service dogs may come in all breeds, shapes, and sizes, providing assistance to those with disabilities ranging from vision impairment, to seizure disorders, diabetes, PTSD, and any number of things in between, an increase in the number of fake service dogs is creating real problems for legitimate teams.

fake service dogs

A ‘Service Dog Team’ is used to describe a service dog, that has been trained to meet specific disability-related needs, and the handler/owner for which the dog has been trained to assist. Legitimate service dogs are trained for hundreds of hours and can perform a variety of specific tasks tailored to their handler, such as opening doors and picking up items, to sniffing out allergens and alerting to oncoming seizures, even providing stability and emotional support.

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs in public places not normally considered dog-friendly.

Many dog owners have seen a service dog team in public, legally and rightfully, walking through the mall, enjoying dinner in a restaurant, even boarding an airplane, and thought, It would be cool if I could take my dog everywhere, too. It’s not unusual or even horrible to consider, we love our dogs.

What many people fail to understand, however, is that service dogs are not ‘pets.’ Ask anyone with a service dog and they’ll certainly tell you that, while they love the dog and often credit them with saving their life, they would prefer that service dog was not a necessity in order to live a more normal life.

But a new trend among dog owners is quickly becoming a big problem for legitimate service dog teams. People are disguising untrained family pets as service dogs, complete with vests and identification cards, in order to take them anywhere and everywhere they wouldn’t normally be welcomed.

CBS Chicago reported,

A search of eBay for “service dog patches” and “service dog vests” produced more than 22,000 results. Several websites sell similar items for as much as $150 after requiring answers to just a few easy questions.

It’s all possible because, while service dogs are defined under federal law, there is no official training these dogs must follow, no central registry that they must be a part of, and no standard certification that they must receive. The ambiguity surrounding what legally defines a service dog leaves a wide opening for fraud and abuse of rights both by dog owners and by the companies that sell vests and service dog patches or ID cards to whomever opens their wallet.

This ambiguity coupled with a general lack of public understanding of ADA laws compounds the growing problem. A service dog is not legally required to wear a vest, patch, or carry any type of ID card, though many service dog teams do these things because it’s easier to just show a meaningless ID card when asked for one than it is to explain the laws to business owners, managers, and employees, and even law enforcement officers that haven’t been educated.

Additionally, because ADA laws prohibit questioning a person about their disability and from asking for evidence of a service dog’s certification, business owners and authorities are left with their hands tied.

So, what makes fake service dogs such a big problem?

Legitimate service dogs are well trained and a necessity to their handlers. They are trained to not be disruptive or cause a scene while in public. You will never see a service dog jumping up at people, barking or growling (unless alerting their handler to a problem), or even using the bathroom inappropriately.

Fake service dogs are both a safety issue for the public and for legitimate service dogs. They negatively impact the acceptance and public opinion of service dogs and their disabled handlers.

Now, some states are trying to crack down on the problem of fake service dogs, making it a crime and attaching penalties to those passing off a dog as a service animal. Nineteen states currently have laws in place. However, to truly combat the problem, changes will have to be made at a federal level.

What do you think needs to be done to combat the ever growing problem of fake service dogs, without infringing on the rights of those that truly need them?

36 Comments

36 Comments

  1. Jaye

    Sep 15, 2016 at 4:31 am

    I see this in the airport everyday! People taking advantage of the ADA Act and give disabled people and their service animals a bad rap. I have file complaints for the ADA to enforce the law and to better identify legal service animals the same way we legally identify who parks in handicap parking spaces.

  2. Helen

    Oct 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    First, where are any actual facts and statistics that show people passing off dogs as “fake service dogs” are a problem. I feel this article is irresponsible and ads to hysterical over-reaction. Owners of quite legitimate service dogs use internet sites to get equipment for their dogs. There seems to be this impression that people are doing this for their own ease and convenience and to take their dogs with them for fun. But have you ever tried to take a dog with you everywhere you go? You always have to pay attention to them, they need to be regularly fed, watered and toileted and random people stop you regularly to comment on your dog and ask about them and their training. Other random people regularly stop you to check if your service dog is really a service dog, or randomly stop you because they don’t know the law and just think your dog shouldn’t be allowed where you are taking it. These are probably the same people who scream at folks with disabilities who are parking in reserved spots and don’t (oh horrors) have a wheelchair and a visible disability like a broken leg. (No, you can’t see the heart condition and multiple sclerosis….or whatever). I agree that it would be useful to have a central registry of service dogs and some authority looking at training programs to see if the dog will meet minimum standards to be a ‘good’ public access dog. But in the meantime, since the government doesn’t want to spend that kind of money on regulations, please back off. This problem is likely MUCH smaller than you and other folks think it is… If you’re really that concerned, don’t start a petition like this, start a petition to fund research to determine how much of a problem this really is – I bet you could do a really good study by surveying people with dogs in large malls….just saying….

    • Bethany

      Apr 28, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      I 100% agree. I am a disabled veteran and I’ve been kicked out of businesses with my legitimate service dog and been screamed at that I’m “faking” my disabilities. I called the police and they told the manager that if I was denied access then I had every right to press charges. I didn’t simply because one ignorant employee shouldn’t crash a business. The officer printed the ADA guidelines for the manager and he handled my consumer needs personally from there. It’s all hard enough without all this extra hype. I’ve also experienced from people who volunteer with training programs that because I didn’t go through their program then my dog isn’t a “REAL” service dog. It’s annoying. I try to be patient. However, I do have PTSD and it does slip up in these situations.

    • Jaye

      Sep 15, 2016 at 4:37 am

      I disagree completely! People have been taking advantage of this to not pay for pet boarding fees, avoid apt pet fees, avoid pet transport cost and generally break the law because they feel that their dog or pet is more important than your safety or health.

  3. Megan

    Dec 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I had to train my dog myself. I had a professional trainer do a public access test and let me know that YES, she is a trained service dog. I couldn’t afford to do it any other way. There are not many non profit orgs that help civilians with PTSD. Most only help veterans. I worked my butt off each and every day to work towards her passing the test. I also bought my patches online as well as my vest. I had custom patches made specially for my disability that way. I don’t condone fake service dogs but I need easy access to the equipment my dog needs. Also, there is o law stating that your dog needs to wear a vest. I only use one because it keeps a few of the animal lovers at bay.

    • Bethany

      Apr 28, 2015 at 5:42 pm

      You’re absolutely right. Articles like this fail to pay attention to ADA guidelines. All a service dog is required to have on him/her is a leash/handle of some kind. I have seen a wide range of vests and leashes. Everyone has something different. I originally trained my dog myself but I reached out to the VA and requested a letter for “official” training because I want to develop on what both my service dog and I have already learned from one another. As far as patches and vests and where to buy them…several trainers on various programs told me something similar, they recommend you do a google search for the type of vest you need. I buy vests, saddle bags, patches, etc on all these sites. I even have tailored patches because my service dog is an Akita. Personally because I walk with a cane I need saddle bags because it’s hard to juggle my cane, purse, and holding the SD handle. I also learned the other day that we will be training with a hands free device that wraps around my waist. However, my trainer has a dog that has no leash and the dog simply walks with him everywhere. I’m just tired of people assuming that the dogs they meet are pets. Service dogs, training, needs, alerts, etc DO NOT EQUAL “one size fits all.”

  4. CRISTI

    Oct 11, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Here’s what the ADA says — importantly, emotional support does not qualify an dog as a service animal unless in the absence of PTSD.

    Service animals are defined 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.

    This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.

    Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

  5. john

    Oct 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    I am not sure what you consider a “fake” service dog, but any animal that offers anyone comfort in their life would qualify in my book.

  6. Melissa

    Sep 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I would love to see the US adopt a European attitude towards dogs in public. I don’t think this petition is the answer. As a trainer I have had the pleasure of meeting several legit service dogs and fake service dogs with their CGC’s and find all of them to be wonderfully behaved. What I do have a problem with are people who want their little snappy dogs to be therapy dogs and put them in fake service dog gear. I would love it if CGC dogs got to go into restaurants, ride on public transportation or airplanes, go to the mall, be allowed to go into the restrooms with their owners in public rest areas, etc.

  7. corinne anderson

    Sep 2, 2013 at 12:40 am

    It would be ridiculous and terribly unfair to require any kind of Rx or doctor’s note or anything like that. I am disabled and I am POOR and starving, and HAVE NO MONEY to go to a doctor, doctors are UNAFFORDABLE. Requiring a poor, starving, old, disabled person to go to a doctor that she cannot afford is DISCRIMINATION, it is an impossibility, and it is wrong and unfair. There are apparently a lot of purportedly disabled people who are WEALTHY, and drive expensive cars. They can afford doctors but the truly disabled cannot.

    • Karen

      Sep 3, 2013 at 10:36 am

      But in this case, can you afford dog food and routine vet bills for shots and the dog’s general health? I am not trying to antagonize the situation, I am just asking.

      I would love to have a service dog to help with my mobility, but I can’t afford its general care. Yeah, it would be so much easier for me, but it wouldn’t be fair to the dog.

    • Beth

      Aug 8, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      I know I'm responding to a very old post but I really have to ask….
      I have no income, so I relate to your position. Having said that, if someone cannot afford a doctor's visit then I can't help but feel that they'd also be unable to afford the upkeep a dog requires, let alone training costs. Sure you can train yourself but frankly I feel like that is part of the problem too! (Training a dog yourself often results in way lower standards for the dog.) For example, in the military town I live in, there are several trainers, but you can always tell which dogs come from one or two certain trainers. The group I'm with has incredibly high standards, (for example our dogs cannot even look at a treat once they've acknowledged it, until they are given permission to. Other trainers may not even teach handlers to place dogs under the table at a restraint. Etc.)

      It seems like the majority of people want to claim that something is unfair for some reason or another. But you know what? Maybe it's unfair that those of us who rely on our animals to KEEP US ALIVE have to deal with other people whining about things being unfair.

      By all means, register your goldfish as an emotional support animal, have fun doing it. However, I refuse to go without the life saving 23 minute warning my dog gives me that I'm about to lose all motor control, just because others want to be able to bring their pets everywhere with them.

  8. Jesse Jayne

    Aug 29, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I agree that there needs to be huge changes. I have a service dog that I use for both mobility, helping me up stairs, helping me up if I fall, picking up items for me, and retrieving my cell phone if I am too hurt and no one is home, and I also use her for my PTSD, making sure people don’t get in my space, standing in between people and me, diverting my attention when I start to have a panic attack, ect. I have been thrown out of a gas station even though I explained that she is a service dog. In my opinion there needs to be a national legit registry that is free, but you must provide a doctors note and certificates that they have passed the CGC and the PAT that should be administered for free if you have a doctors note. I believe the dog should get an ID just like a human would. I know people would still make fake ones, but I think that would definitely make a huge difference if people had more hoops they had to jump through by law. I know this sounds like an invasion of privacy, but the ID and doctors note could just state there is a disability and not specifics.

  9. Chloe

    Aug 25, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    I live in an area of Canada that is largely removed from any easy access of a Service Dog program. Unless you live in or close to one of the three big Canadian cities or have a great deal of money then your only option if you need a Service Dog is to train one yourself to suit your specific needs. I have been extremely fortunate (blessed actually) with my canine partner. He is a rescue dog but turned out to be eminently trainable. There is no other option for people like me than to train our dogs (responsibly and to the minimum of the Public Access Test) and to identify them with vests, patches and ID cards that we get off the internet. Disallowing both Owner Trained Service Dogs and Program Trained Service Dogs simple access to a wide range of identification material is not going to stem the tide of fake Service Dogs. That will only come with education…and respect. Those things are impossible to legislate or mandate. They have to seep into a culture. I agree with others who have commented about the European view of dogs and public places. They are so much more relaxed about the whole thing.

  10. Linda

    Aug 24, 2013 at 10:19 am

    To Michelle Mahler, Linda doesn’t have an attitude.. Less anger is appropriate here. I have seen it with a oung healthy man of 20+, he got a dog and wanted to take the dog everywhere, no he didn’t have any disability, emotional or otherwise. He told us he just wanted to be able to take the dog everywhere so he bought the fake stuff which is where I first learned there were sites that you could just buy “service dog” items, I further investigated the ADA act and told him that if he is caught he can face big fines and possibly lose his dog. He said he didn’t care, right now he could take the dog anywhere he wanted, if he was caught he wouldn’t care, then I informed him the business owners were able to ask him 3 questions and if he couldn’t answer them he could be banned from stores. Being an arrogant, young man,he ignored my counseling, he was subsequently evicted… nuff said, Glad you have been responsible, however not all are responsible.

  11. Linda

    Aug 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Thank you Rebecca I was going to post the same thing. Business owners are NOT at the mercy of this epidemic. They can ask the 3 magical questions without being out of line and they NEED to ask.

  12. andrea

    Aug 23, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    To put an end to the problem, North America will have to follow in the footsteps of Europe and loosen up the ridiculous restrictions on companion animals at work, on public transportation, in hospitals and nursing homes, etc. The reason people get their dogs certified (somehow) as service dogs is because they do not want to risk the dog’s life traveling in cargo bays and the like.

  13. Robin

    Aug 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    My husband is a 100% service connected disabled vet. Since the VA pays an average of $30,000 per service dog they give out very few. So, I contacted service dog trainers, read lots and lots of material the law and traine dtwo myself for what he needed. Two Akita mixes. A larger one and a smaller one.

    Razor the smaller one has his own collection of Delta blankets. Bear is too large. They were registered for free at USSERVICEDOGREGISTRY.ORG I bought a lot of the stuff on EBAY. Try to find service patches in Alaska.

    Your petition while well meaning is misguided. My husbands dogs have walked him home in winter after a hike, they have comforted him in the VA while semi-consiuos after an equilibrium attack, and have alerted me after a fall that he had a concussion…in Elmendorf AFB hospital! He usually brings one at a time and they do what he needs. Yes, they will allow a child to pet them despite any sign on them and no they have never used the bathroom inside…even on a flight from Alaska to Minnesota. Razor is better behaved then most children on a flight and even on air marshall commented he didn’t even realize a dog was on the plane.

    Disabled people us service dogs for a lot of reasons and restricting it to narrow laws is a mistake. Penalties for fraud is more appropriate. The last thing this country needs is more laws.

    • 2SD

      Aug 25, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      USSERVICEDOGREGISTRY.ORG is a SCAM site, just like the hundreds of others online. There are too many pets “registered” through that site to even count, sadly. Scam scam scam. “Registering” with that site doesn’t make a dog a Service Dog. A year and a half (or more) of intensive consistent training (including tasks/work, socialization and exposure training) is what is necessary… can’t just go online and “register” with a bogus site, slap a vest on the dog and magically make it a “Service Dog”.

      • Bethany

        Apr 28, 2015 at 5:53 pm

        That site is actually surprisingly recommended by the VA to veterans with service dogs. It’s a means to get appropriate material one needs to have to suit their needs. I have heard a lot of people say it’s a scam site but I’ve personally spoken with an ADA attorney that says they are doing nothing wrong. They aren’t breaking any laws. And as far as your response she didn’t simply register the dogs and slap a vest on them. She trained them and purchased items she needed to suit her situation. All perfectly legal.

  14. Ellen Erickson

    Aug 23, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Well, there might be another angle to the problem. WHY people do so want to take their pets to the shopping malls and public transportation? Maybe this country should rethink its laws and adjust to what many European countries do all the time- dogs ARE allowed to public places and public transportation.

  15. Beth

    Aug 23, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I ordered my service dog’s equipment online; and even received a discount when I submitted a copy of the Rx that brought him into my life. Where does one order service dog products from otherwise? I’m not arguing and I mean no disrespect. I literally do not know where else one would purchase these items.

  16. LINDA MASTIN

    Aug 23, 2013 at 7:41 am

    YES I SEE IT HERE IN FL……THEY CAN DO IT ON-LINE …BOOKS AND STUFF ….THEN THEY CAN TAKE DOGS EVERYWHERE WITH THEM…….HOT IN THE CAR (WHICH) THEY CANT LEAVE THEM IN SO THEY DO THIS AND TAKE EVERYWHERE…..SEEN A 8 WEEK OLD POM. IN WAL-MART AND THE GIRL SAID IN TRAINING……SHE HAD IT IN HER ARMS…..BUT JUST NOT RIGHT ……THEY ARE TO BE FOR REAL NEEDS TO OWNER WITH DISABILITES…..

  17. paula

    Aug 23, 2013 at 7:10 am

    You know what the online sales of vests etx do for us who have a great service dog. Saves us time , and many of us do not live where service dog items are available. Then what shall we do? So no I will not sign. Laws state dogs have one mistake in a place of business then they can be sent home for a day. If the dogs behavior keeps up it can be sent back for more training or denied access but it must be a continual distributive behavior such as jumping pulling things off shelves at stores, growling at all people, (mine is trained to keep certain people away as part of her job). I’d say I have ran into 4 people in over a yr she has kept at a distance from me. One time she had an accident, that was my fault, living in the country and having just come from her rattlesnake booster shot, we made a stop. The shots can make them ill and such. The small store totally understood when I explained. I always carry a pack with wipes, paper towels, and her water bowl. This is sad that people think we have any other ways to access what they want us to use then the internet.

    • Bethany

      Apr 28, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      My service dog also keeps people away from me. Mainly men. But he reacts to my PTSD and anxiety issues. If a man makes me uncomfortable he groans (no growling or barking). It’s his job and what he’s trained to do. During flashbacks he will divert attention, groan/grunt, and paw at me. Approximately 20 mins before a painful episode (which I will not disclose) he will put his nose in my belly button and stay there. This lets me know to grab the heating pad, pain meds, muscle relaxer, and lay down. Last week he alerted me before my appendix burst so I was able to get emergency surgery without the added down time from an abscess! I love my service dog and I’ve had him since the day he was born. We have been training since he was 8 weeks old. I feel like we never stop training because I learn just as much from him as he does from me! I too carry wipes, water bowl, and more in his saddle bag. I also buy materials online.

  18. kolby dalton

    Aug 23, 2013 at 6:34 am

    I have a service dog I had to train myself for my specific needs…..ADA says that you don’t need special papers to prove you have a service dog..there are companies showing up for a fee they will register you and your dog…they are just out for your money!!!!! beware!!!!!

    • Barbara

      Aug 25, 2013 at 1:17 am

      It is actually against the law for them to ask for anything other than- 1.Is that a service dog?
      2. What service does the dog provide? And that is it. No one can ask to see anything of reference to the dog or you.

  19. Mary Ann Ward

    Aug 23, 2013 at 1:11 am

    That is horrible it is also y my friends and family who r forunate enough to have dogs have to prove that they r legal in hospitals and such as they all say well how do we know that dog is really a service dog. Not right. All because able bodied people want something that only we with disabilities have? Do you want the disability too.? Cuz you can have mine and the dog and i will go back to the life I had planned which was not this one.

  20. Nenene

    Aug 22, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Please do not sign this petition. It does not address the problem of faker service dogs and works against the service dog community.

  21. lucie

    Aug 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    i still get asked for all my stuff and still i’m not liked but i watch people run in and out shops with their regular pets a they have no trouble and i have mine for reasons it’s frustrating plus mines companion thearpy and would love something more service for my back and hands but can’t afford the high costs that service dogs cost on my income so the poor people always seen to suffer the most!!!

    • Keelin

      Sep 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm

      Hi Lucie,
      While i understand what you are saying in your post. I do want to let you know as someone who works organizations to train service dogs. Most well trained dogs come from non-profit organizations at absolutely no cost to the person who needs them. It depends on your area but the fact that you do not have a lot of money, does not and should not stop you from finding a non-profit in your area that will get you a well trained dog designed to fit your needs.
      I hope you can find a dog to help you soon.

  22. jennifer

    Aug 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Since there isn’t any standard training requirement for service dogs you can’t say legitimate service dogs are well trained. The Supreme Court ruled that a dog by it’s very nature can help people that have problems with social stress and anxiety. Therefore it’s allowing it’s owner to go out in public which is a service under ADA guidelines and it requires no special training. I understand what you are saying, but you contradicted your self by first saying they don’t need special training, then by saying legitimate service dogs are specially trained. Service animals don’t need any kind of identification so people buy these things over the internet is a racket. The ADA guidelines are that a service animal can go anywhere it’s owner can go and it’s against the law to require it to be identified as such (HIPPA, privacy guidelines), and no one can ask to see it’s credentials. Having worked in law enforcement we were not even allowed to ask.

  23. Rebecca

    Aug 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I work with a service dog and people using pet’s as service dogs is a real issue. However, I’d like to point out that there are questions that business owners can ask to determine if a service dog is legitimate or not if it is not clearly evident that the dog is a service dog:

    § 36.302 Modifications in policies, practices, or procedures.
    (6) Inquiries. A public accommodation shall not ask about the nature or extent of a person´s disability, but may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal. A public accommodation may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. A public accommodation shall not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Generally, a public accommodation may not make these inquiries about a service animal when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (e.g., the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision, pulling a person´s wheelchair, or providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability).

    CCI’s pettition to ban the sale of vests, patches and IDs won’t solve this situation since legitimate service dogs are not required by law to wear vests, have patches or have IDs. People will just start bringing their dogs in without these things. If you want to solve the problem, standards of training and certification need to be addressed for all service dogs, whether program trained or owner trained. Unfortunately, one of the major service dog advocacy groups is against this for fear that it will cost handlers who train their own dogs too much money. I have to believe that there’s a low cost way to do this. Why not model the Public Access Test after AKC’s CGC? Once standards are in place, insurance companies are more likely to be willing to pay for service dogs as a medical expense, too, which will ultimately help fund their training as well as their continued use.

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