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The Real Trouble with Fake Service Dogs

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The following guest post was written for The Dogington Post by Veteran Traveler Lon B. Hodge, an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs.

To fake it is to stand guard over emptiness.
–Arthur Herzog

Veteran Traveler blogger Lon Hodge is an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs. Photo credit Lon Hodge.

There is a barely a day goes by that I do not see a tweet, news article or Facebook update about someone being denied entrance into a restaurant or shop because they are accompanied by a service dog. Many of the incidents have involved combat veterans and their PTSD Battle Buddies and other individuals with “invisible” disabilities.

Some of the businesses have suffered catastrophic losses and had their ignorance of disability regulations broadcast nationwide. Some of the public shaming has been wholly earned while some businesses simply had never been educated. With the growing number of service dogs being employed and the number of service dog agencies springing up daily the problem looks to get much worse before it gets better. So why is it happening and what needs to be done?

A lack of standards for certifying a service dog, the growing number of online agencies that will sell anyone a vest and intimidating documents that imply the dog who carries them is legit, and a lack of proper training for service, law enforcement and hospitality personnel are primarily to blame.

Libertyville, Illinois, the town adjacent to where I live, just passed an ordnance requiring Service Dog ID cards for “real service dogs.”  Therein lies the rub: There are no legitimate documents that can certify that any canine is authentic. While there are standards for trainers, there are no universally accepted standards for what constitutes an acceptable service dog. And the law itself, while sympathetic to local businesses who don’t want animals in their businesses for fear of losing customers flies in the face of ADA requirements.

The Veterans Administration, ironically exempt from Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation is investigating requiring all dogs to be trained by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) certified trainers. That has caused uproar among established non-ADI trainers who opt out of ADI control over their methods. In the interim, the VA where I receive treatment is seeing a huge increase in the number of dogs and many of them inadequately trained and even dangerous.

This so-called “service dog” was still snarling as his owner dragged him away after attacking Hodge’s PTSD service dog, Gander.

A few weeks ago Gander, my service dog who was trained by an ADI certified trainer, was attacked by a dog who clearly had no business being in public yet: The dog barked, failed to heel, and attended little, if at all, to his human. Earlier in the day I spoke to a veteran who openly, and almost proudly, admitted that he had bought his Chihuahua’s vest and laminated credentials online and that he simply told people that his dog was a seizure alert companion. And recently, I watched a Great Dane with a service dog scarf wander from table to table in a local restaurant in search of scrap handouts while the owner laughed and encouraged horrified patrons to ignore him. Though service dog misrepresentation is a crime in many states, few businesses know enough about them to risk media humiliation by sending away a troublesome dog.

And agencies are not anxious to “certify” service dogs. It creates a measure of liability in out litigious society that suit happy plaintiffs and many lawyers would love to see. It could well imply the dog is somehow safe to be in public. While gander has never acted out, he is after all a dog and could possibly be goaded into a conflict an aggressive poser. And what if an innocent bystander was scratched or bitten in the process?

So, greeted with skepticism and questions, those of us with bona fide needs endure unnecessary hostility creates stress that is counterproductive and defeats the purpose for getting a PTSD service dog in the first place. I am worn out by franchises and chain stores rushing to the door to keep me from bringing in my “pet”. Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s have led the way in abusive confrontations. But, I generally take a moment to explain and if there is still conflict I generally exit and write to corporate. I am saddened that confrontation has become routine for me.

“Fake is as old as the Eden Tree,” said Orson Welles. He is right.  I returned recently from eight years in China where nothing can be trusted to be as it appears. And the benefits for manufacturers to sell bogus products is not different than the motivation for a pet owner scamming their way into a hotel or onto an airplane with Fluffy or Spike to avoid the extra fees associated with bringing a furry companion.

So, what is there to do? One highly respected service dog group is circulating a petition to bring the Justice Department into the fray. They want the bogus registries shut down. But, I am not for that. Where there is an illegal will, there is a way and people will circumvent the law in an absence of true standards.

I propose a national conference on standards, training and registry that brings together hotels, restaurants, law enforcement, the ADA, trainers, service dog agencies and people like me with a vested interest in peaceful coexistence and accommodation. In the absence of agreement on what constitutes a service dog the problem will persist.

To follow the Veteran Traveler and his service dog, Gander on Facebook, click here.

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  1. Avatar Of Joyce Rutledge

    Joyce Rutledge


    I agree with you, as well. I have a Therapy dog, and I am always explaining the difference between therapy and service dogs. I have a friend who wanted her dog to fly “with” her, not in cargo. So, she went to her dr., told him she had anxiety, and got whatever she needed in writing to get his service dog status. So wrong and so unfair to those who truly need these service dogs. I think this is more common than we think!

  2. Avatar Of Emily



    I am currently having my third service dog privately trained. All three have been privately trained. Why? Because the large recognised organisations usually have over two year waiting lists, pick the dog for you, and require extended trips to their facilities which are often out of state while you and your dog complete training. I am VERY disabled, opinionated about the type of dog I want, and am incapable of long distance travel… so this would be a huge problem.
    When I got my first service dog, it was back in the 90’s. No one in my area had a clue what a service animal was. Fancy harnesses, vests, ID badges, etc. were harder to come by… and once I learned I didn’t NEED them, I didn’t bother. I familiarised myself with the law and went forth armed only with that. Did I get stopped and questioned a lot? Yes… but I would have anyway… my first service dog was a rottweiler. She was beautifully behaved but some people have issues with large black dogs. Go figure.
    Being in those situations taught me a lot about self confidence, allowed me to be an advocate for my own rights and those of others with disabilities, and for a few years, she and I got to show off how rottweilers can be gentle, obedient, patient, and useful.
    The problem I have with registries and standards… Hmmm… Usually the registry has no contact with the dog and handle except for storing an electronic form, taking their money, and perhaps mailing them something. It’s basically a scam. You DON’T NEED to be registered anywhere under FEDERAL LAW which trumps local laws and statutes. Also, there are so many types of disability and the needs those incur can be so vastly different that standardising training across the board is ludicrous. Yes, all service animals should be completely under control in public situations. But beyond that, what would you suggest? I think that in the end, educating the public is the wisest choice. Not narrowing our own rights in the name of making things a bit easier in the short term.

  3. Avatar Of Chris



    This is all too common. My fiance has multiple medical conditions and we see people with imposter SDs all the time. Because of how they act, many stores do not believe that our toy poodle can be a SD. She started alerting on her own so we started taking her to a trainer.

    • Avatar Of Chris



      When I see fakes, I remind people that it is a not just a way to get your pet into the store, it is falsifying information under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is fraud (possibly chargeable on a federal level).

  4. Avatar Of Chloe



    Thank you for this. I suffer from PTSD and I have owned and trained dogs all my life. Therefore it was a natural fit for me to train my own dog to be my own Service Dog (for PTSD and for mobility issues). I made sure that Rufus could pass the Public Access Test (at a minimum)well before he would wear the vest for me. The only place I could get a vest is online. I would never have the money to pay for a school trained Service Dog and there is very little funding where I live–actually I would be responsible for a large portion of it and I subsist on a disability income. Therefore, “Owner Trained” was the only option for me. That being said I am still responsible for maintaining a high level of training–just as high, if not higher because it is personalized, than would occur at a recognized school. I am all in favour of there being a Standard to which we hold Service Dogs and their Handlers. HOW they get there should not be limited. That would put persons with disabilities who need Service Dogs at a distinct disadvantage. There will always be individuals who try to manipulate regulations and I think only continuing education is going help. It is a very sad thing that the mental health community in the province I live in (the smallest in Canada) has to date never heard of a psychiatric Service Dog until I came along. I don’t want to be the poster person for this where I live but I just go out with Ru and if folks ask I say he helps me with my disabilities. The only problem I’ve had was on a bus when the driver said, “But you don’t look blind”…I told him what a Service Dog was and later called the company.

    • Avatar Of Traci Westling

      Traci Westling


      I my self is in the process of having my own dog trained as a service dog, I am bipolar and suffer from sever social anxiety. I wanted to use my own dog because he is very in tuned with my feeling and can sense when my anxiety starts to act up. I am having trained by a service dog trainer, we work with my dog once a week for two hrs. He isnt ready for public use just yet but I hope when we are that he will be accepted just as any other service dog. I completely understand that Psychiatric Service dogs are still not recognized for being a service dog for our disability is on the inside. But I hope one day there will be no need to question whats the purpose of our dogs.

      • Avatar Of Heather



        Psychiatric service dogs are recognized in the US! Your dog just has to be trained to perform specific tasks, which your dog seems to be in training for, if he isn’t already. Alerting is a specific task.

  5. Avatar Of Mary Ann Helpern

    Mary Ann Helpern


    You are right Lon- totally agree with your statements . Recently I was doing some service dog research , at the end of each page on Google ( not against Google) there was an ad for service dog vests – gear and paperwork for the low sale price if $39.99. Sale sale sale…
    I know that I would not be happy and would tell someone how wrong they were if they bragged if a fake service dog. Knowing Lon and Gander and the hassles they go thru being legit. That each fake service dog scam to get a pet dog on a family vacation free- makes it that much more difficult for Lon and Gander.
    I hope that one day the fad of having a “service” dog passes- so people who truly have a need will get their service dog and be treated fairly. Running around with a pretend service pup does no good for anyone!!
    It’s like the teenage girls we saw at the mall last week who were perky and healthy. The driver was loudly laughing that they got to park close today because she had Grandma’s car fully equipped with a handicapped placard . The look that I gave her said everything – she embarrassed lay turned away – the big score of the day no longer cool. I am sure she will nit do that again!
    We were parked next to her . As I slowly walked towards the store she saw that my placard was on my rear view mirror for a real reason !
    Educating one person at a time is the way I guess!
    Thank you Lon and Gander for teaching people everyday !

    • Avatar Of Lkm



      I have to say, as someone with an ‘invisible disability’ the comment about the young teenage girl who was ‘obviously perky & healthy’ is very frustrating. It’s because of people like you, that I refuse to get a disabled card for my car. I will struggle from the back of the lot, on bad days, because I know that even though I may be in excruciating pain as my joints scream at me, I look perky, young & healthy. I force a smile, because you never know who is having a worse day than you…

      Those teenagers may very well have been in the wrong and no one should use a disabled spot if they don’t need it, but never judge a book by its cover. There are many diseases out there that vary day to day and prejudice against a silent disease is just as difficult as prejudices against obvious ones. Just because it is invisible doesn’t mean it is any less legitimate.

  6. Avatar Of Toni Toni says:

    Am hoping Gander is ok!! He is so awesome and handsome!

    • Avatar Of Donnalee



      Want to raise an issue. I suffer anxiety and it attacks especially at night. It can make me throw up and be sick for hours. I have a great dog that is more powerful than medication in stopping or preventing attacks. Because of MY condition and the dogs compasion he is a service dog. I have a doctor that states that. I should never be told I cannot rent or live some where without him. He is a golden/pit/husky mix blond with blue eyes and thick black eyeliner with frekles. He is magazine cover perfect.

      Is he a trained service dog–NO. Has $10,000 been spent on him like a seeing eye dog. NO. Should he go into restarants NO NO NO. He begs–is food dominate.

      I am fearful that service dogs with become a money issue. What about veterans that get a dog from the pound and it intuitively helps with night terrors–yes, that has become a service dog–that dog should have right to NOT be evicted and thrown out of apartments and housing complexes.

      There are different services dogs. How do you train a dog to sense seizures? ? ? Dogs got it or they don’t. My dog can sense if I am crying half a mile away and comes to me and puts a paw around me and licks my tears away. He was never taught this.

      I don’t want to see service dogs become a money status symbol. Not all service dogs are the same. If a dog begs–it should NEVER be in a restarant. These issues need to be considered in laws. Just because a dog should not be in a food establishment doesn’t mean it is not a service dog.

      • Avatar Of Maryk



        I agree that a dog does not have to be professional trained to be a service dog. The dog could be trained by the owner or owner’s family to see to his needs. The fact that your doctor has stated the necessity of having your dog should qualify him as a service dog. The problem are the companies that are selling official looking documentations stating that a dog is a service dog when it couldn’t be further from the truth. People are buying them so they can bring their dogs anywhere and it is hurting the legitimate service dogs. I think that a service dog qualification should have to be made by a person’s doctor and the vet for that dog.

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