Fake Service Dog Teams – The Solution Already Exists (Part 1)
20 years ago it was a rare treat to see an assistance dog out working with their partner. The dog and handler were a clear Team – they communicated quietly, the dog skillfully performed their trained tasks as needed, and the handler was keenly aware of maintaining proper social etiquettes. An assistance team demonstrated the Golden Standard of a well-behaved dog.
Now it’s a rare trip to a store to *not* encounter a dog in a vest, though it’s often all too clear the dog is not a highly trained working partner… we hear dogs barking from across the store (sometimes aggressively!) and handlers shouting for basic control, we see dogs wandering on a retractable leash sometimes aisles away from their oblivious handler, we see merchandise that has been peed upon… it’s a picture that certainly makes it hard to believe that the dog is actually trained to assist in any way, never mind in a public setting.
Why has this become the norm, and what can be done about it?
Let’s look at what a legitimate assistance dog team is meant to be, and then we’ll address why and how so many people choose to ‘play the system’.
Defining some terms and laws
‘Assistance dog’ is the umbrella term for a dog trained to help a person with a disability live more independently. There are 3 categories of assistance dogs;
- Guide dogs, which guide handlers with visual disability
- Hearing dogs, which provide sound alerting to handlers with hearing disability
- Service dogs, which originally were only dogs assisting a handler with mobility disabilities, but now the term applies to essentially all other disabilities, many of which are considered “invisible” because they are not necessarily apparent to others… such as social/developmental disabilities, psychological disabilities, and disabilities requiring medical/allergen alerting
Assistance dog partners, trainers, organizations and advocates fought long and hard for highly-trained and conscientiously handled assistance dogs to have legal access rights. When people abuse this law by parading sub-standard dogs as working partners, it puts the rights of legitimate teams in jeopardy.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is the federal law in the US which addresses the right of a disabled person to use a trained dog as a medical device including in many public locations which do not typically allow the presence of dogs. It is the person with a disability who has the right to use their medical equipment in public; the dog itself does not have public access rights.
The ADA specifies that the dog must be individually trained to reliably perform the task/s or work that the person needs due to their disability. There is no limit to the ways in which a dog might assist their partner, but examples include guiding a blind partner around obstacles on the sidewalk, nudging a deaf partner when someone calls out to them, opening a door for a partner in a wheelchair, guiding a panicking partner to a quiet spot, interrupting a partner from a self-harm behavior – and a million other possibilities. Only one task is required by law, but most assistance dogs provide many more – around 20-70 distinctly trained tasks is a range that describes the majority of assistance dog teams.
The ADA goes on to specify that the dog cannot do any number of things which demonstrate a lack of control of the handler or which could pose health or safety risks to other people/property, or even just be disruptive to the nature of the location.
The ADA also specifies that no form of ID or doctor’s verification can be required of a disabled person, nor any specific working gear, organization’s emblem or proof of training for the dog. Medical information is confidential and only under very specific circumstances should it be shared. In fact, if the nature of the disability or the task is better suited to it, an assistance dog can be worked off-lead and/or without any collar, harness, vest, etc. The dog must still meet the minimum behavior standards of the law including remaining directly at their partner’s side except while performing tasks which require the dog to move elsewhere (such as retrieving an item that has rolled out of reach, holding a stay to perform a blocking task at the checkout, leaving their partner to find help, etc).
The ADA allows businesses and authority personnel to ask only 2 questions, if the disability is not obvious;
- Is this a service [assistance] dog?
- (Answer; yes or no)
- What task do they perform?
- (Answer only needs to be one task and does not need to be demonstrated; ‘retrieves dropped items’, or ‘alerts to medical events’)
Why do people fake having an assistance dog?
As you can see, without any proof of disability or training required, it is quite simple for someone to claim that their pet is a service dog (which as you remember, covers most of the roles for invisible disabilities). Despite the federal law not requiring any identification as a working dog, it is very easy for anyone to go online these days and purchase any sort of vest, backpack or other gear with patches proclaiming or implying status as an assistance dog; it’s also very easy to purchase a doctor’s prescription and an ID card which may appear official but are made with zero substantiation of any claims.
Why do people try to pass their pet off as a service dog? There are a variety of reasons, but the most common ones are:
- It’s fun to bring their dog places
- The dog is anxious or destructive if left at home
- There is no fee for medical equipment, when there may be a pet fee (hotel, airline, train, etc)
- They think it “doesn’t hurt anyone”
- “Everyone else does it”
- They believe they are above the law
There are also many well-meaning handlers who think they are following the law and meeting the requirements of an assistance team. Not all health conditions qualify a person for an assistance dog – this is determined not by diagnosis but by debilitation; further, the disabling symptoms need to have a way for a dog to mitigate them… for example, a dog can’t breathe for a person who can’t breathe on their own – but a dog could help carry a small oxygen tank so that the person doesn’t have to use extra energy to carry it themselves. Sometimes the person’s health does qualify them for an assistance dog, but the dog they have either has an inappropriate temperament, isn’t properly trained, or the person doesn’t know how to handle the dog to public access standards.
Sometimes the person is not disabled but the dog has been through some sort of training – perhaps the dog is an assistance dog for another person, or used to be – or maybe it’s a therapy dog or emotional support dog and the partner doesn’t understand that the dog still doesn’t qualify for public access as an assistance dog.
Here’s the big problem
ADA law sets the *minimal* standards of acceptable behavior in public.
» Every person with a dog who portrays themselves as an assistance dog team is representing all assistance dog teams.
» Every time a dog misbehaves or a handler either ignores or handles their dog with a lack of empathy and understanding, it undermines the life-changing and highly respected partnership of real working teams.
» Every time a dog is reactive, protective or not directly under it’s handler’s control, there is a safety risk for the general public and for any other dog teams in the vicinity.
» Every time a dog tries to attack or otherwise engage a legitimate assistance dog, the working dog will be at least a bit distracted and might miss part of their job – might stumble into the street with their blind partner, or spill a bag of groceries they had been carrying next to their partner’s wheelchair, or miss the warning scent of an impending seizure… this in turn can create a medical or safety hazard.
» Every time a person flashes an “ID”, it creates future hassles for legitimate assistance dog teams who choose not to carry/show an ID and are then treated as if they are a fake team.
It is also unfair to the pet dog, to put them into the hectic and unpredictable environment of the public. Prospective assistance dog puppies are carefully raised and systematically taught how to handle these stresses, exposed in small increments as the dog builds their socialization and public access skill-set. Even with the right genetic make-up and careful raising there is still no guarantee a dog will mature to be comfortable working in public. To think that a pet dog can just have a vest popped on them and suddenly be fine at Walmart is a terrible mistake, and can create any number of dangerous situations for the stressed dog, members of the public (especially children who may run up and hug the dog unannounced!), the handler (who could be hurt trying to control the dog, or be responsible for injuries to others and damage to property), and other assistance dog teams as mentioned above.
Why do fake teams keep getting away with it?
- It’s easy to get a vest
- It’s easy to get an ID
- No proof is needed for online purchases
- No training credentials are needed for the handler/trainer
- Businesses/authorities can’t verify disability or training, must assume it’s a legitimate team if the 2 legal questions are answered correctly
- Businesses don’t know their rights if the dog misbehaves, and are concerned of repercussions
Let’s examine that last point more closely. Businesses don’t know their own rights. Too many businesses don’t realize that ‘legitimate’ or not, a handler can (and should) be required to remove their dog from the premises if there is any lack of control – this includes a dog vocalizing, pulling on the leash, not responding to the handler’s cues, using the bathroom inappropriately, etc. A dog can (and should) be removed for any display of protection/aggression/reactivity, or in any way interfering with members of the public. A dog can (and should) be removed for causing any damage to property not owned or about to be purchased by the handler – knocking items off shelves, peeing on things, etc.
So many self-righteous handlers have set off hateful campaigns on social media, creating media disasters for businesses of every size, when there were never legal rights to have the dog in the business in the first place.
Now obviously dogs are not robots and even an excellent assistance dog can make minor mistakes every once in a while, but a good handler will quickly get their dog right back under control or will remove the dog from the business before the manager even gets involved. A good handler will be *on the side of the business*, because there is only one law and everyone needs to follow their part.
Also, plenty of managers and lower employees are too quick to judge – often tainted by prior bad experiences – and attempt to remove proper assistance teams who have done no wrong. This is a problem too, generally resolved fairly simply by sharing the law and assuring the business that if the dog demonstrates any uncontrolled nuisance or hazard that of course the handler will be responsible for removing them immediately.
Coming up in Part 2 we’ll discuss the many problems with some of the proposed ‘solutions’, and explain the more appropriate and feasible ways to resolve the issue of people masquerading their pets as service dogs.
~ ~ ~ Click here for Fake Service Dogs – Solution (part 2) ~ ~ ~
If you’ve found this article helpful and interesting, you’ll love the next part! Please share and leave your comments and questions below.