“Do you train service dogs?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked. It’s become a more common question over the past few years, as more owners are learning that they can owner-train their own service dogs instead of buying a dog from an organization.
“Absolutely! We can help you with all of the basic training and begin doing some skills work, then connect you with a local service dog organization to assist with your final public access training. What sort of assistance skills are you hoping to teach your dog?”
“Oh, I don’t actually need my dog to do anything. I’m not really disabled. I just want to be able to take her with me to the grocery store and bring her on planes without paying the extra fees.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t legally help you train your dog as a fake service dog. Only dogs who are trained to assist their disabled owner in day-to-day tasks are allowed into grocery stores or on planes like you described. Lying about the status of your pet dog is a serious crime, and I wouldn’t recommend that you pursue it. If you’d like some help polishing up your dog’s manners or even registering her as a therapy dog so you can volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes, we’re happy to assist with that.”
“Oh. Are you sure it’s illegal? Because my friend paid a trainer to certify her dog as a service dog, and she doesn’t have any sort of disability. My dog’s really well-behaved, and I would like to take her everywhere with me.”
And that’s the rub of it… there are unethical trainers and organizations out there that do just this, “certifying” fake service dogs so that people can bring their pets with them everywhere. If this idea appeals to you, I would strongly advise you to think twice. Lying about your dog’s status is a serious offense, and can not only result in legal troubles for you but also makes it that much harder for the people who really need their legitimate service dogs.
So, what is a service dog? Service dogs are trained animals who assist people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It’s not okay to ask what disability the person with a dog has, but you can legally ask that person two questions. First, you can ask them whether the dog with them is a trained service dog. If the dog isn’t, it can be asked to leave your business or workplace and has no more rights to be there than any other pet dog. If the dog is a true service dog but is disruptive or dirty to the point of posing a safety or health hazard, even a trained service dog can be asked to leave. A dog who eliminates on the grocery store floor, for example, does not have to be allowed to continue assisting his or her owner in that store. Asking a service dog and his or her handler to leave your business because you’re not comfortable with dogs, though, would not be appropriate. Service dogs are allowed to enter businesses unless and until something truly unacceptable happens.
You can also ask what tasks the dog is trained to perform for the owner. True service dogs perform trained behaviors that help their owners navigate daily life. These tasks will vary depending on the disability the person lives with, but may include retrieving items, opening doors, bracing or pulling the owner, alerting to sounds or strangers approaching, letting the owner know about that person’s impending seizures or migraines, pressing buttons, forestalling panic attacks or flashbacks, and many more. True service dogs are trained to perform these specialized skills so that their owners can enjoy more freedom and a better quality of life. If you see a service dog or a service dog in training out in public, it’s important to treat that animal much as you would treat an inanimate piece of medical equipment such as an oxygen tank or wheelchair. Don’t try to interact with or distract the dog unless you’re specifically invited to do so, and respect the right of the owner to have their medically-necessary dog with them unmolested. Give the dog space from children or other animals so that he or she can focus on his work, which is often very physically and mentally demanding for these special dogs.
But what if you truly do have a disability that would be helped with the assistance of a service dog? Can you train your pet dog to perform service tasks? It’s possible, but it depends a great deal on your dog. Many dogs simply do not have the physical structure (solid hips, elbows, eyes, heart, etc.) or mental soundness (eagerness and ability to learn; friendliness towards people of all ages and sizes and to all animals; solidness in the face of noises, traffic, crowds, food, and other distractions; and ability to focus for what may be hours at a time without getting distracted). Take an honest look at your dog or better yet, have an experienced trainer evaluate your dog for you to make sure that what you’re asking is reasonable and fair to your dog. Asking a dog who’s not cut out for service work to take on those tasks is incredibly cruel. Remember, even dogs who are specifically bred and trained for service work sometimes flunk out of their programs. If your dog was not acquired with this purpose in mind, it’s important that you honestly evaluate whether you should be asking him or her to take on this responsibility before you start.
But what if you don’t have a disability? What if you just want to bring your pet with you? There are plenty of pet-friendly stores that will happily accept your well-trained companion. Check around your area, and give your business to the stores that welcome your dog. Many home improvement stores, bookstores, banks, craft stores, hobby shops, and clothing stores will allow well-behaved dogs if you ask politely. Stores and restaurants that prepare or sell food often aren’t able to be quite so welcoming due to health code policies, but many of these as well as coffee shops and bars will allow your polite pooch to accompany you where outdoor seating is available.
You can also consider training your friendly, stable adult dog to become a therapy dog. Therapy dogs do not have the same rights as service dogs, but trained teams who have passed a test and become registered with a national therapy dog organization are permitted to volunteer at hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, and other places where a connection with a friendly animal can be helpful to others. Therapy visits can be hugely rewarding for dogs and their handlers, and there’s always a big need for these specially trained dogs to spread some comfort and cheer to those who could use it most.
After several more questions to see whether I would consider bending my rules for her, the caller hung up, frustrated. I wasn’t willing to say her dog was a service dog for any price, nor would I recommend anyone who might. I reiterated how unethical passing a pet dog off as a service animal was, and hoped that the caller got the message. Faking your need for a service dog is every bit as taboo as taking a handicapped parking space when you don’t need it.
Have you ever heard of someone passing their pet dog off as a service dog? Did you call them on their behavior? Please share your stories and tips in the comments section below, and consider sharing this blog post with your friends to spread the word about the fake service dog problem. Enjoy your dog in and at the places where it’s appropriate for you to do so, and be thankful that you have the independence not to need him for more specialized assistance. Pet dogs have a very important job too, and respecting your dog’s place is a great way to respect the amazing individual he is.