Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Let's start off by stating that this blog post is purely opinion based on education and knowledge of canine training, Service Dog Training, Service Dog Laws, ADA Regulations, and business ownership.
Many videos of dogs in equipment, harnesses, wearing service dog patches and identifiers, dogs behaving well in public places, or showing off their service dog tasks have gone viral. Some dogs are undoubtedly capable of learning very reliable obedience as well as impressive tasks to make their owner's lives easier, so its no surprise the public audience enjoys seeing these videos.
With the increasing popularity of service dogs on social media, its also no surpise to see an increasing number of "Fake Service Dogs," or rather unacceptable or inappropriate service dogs.
Fake Service Dogs
Wouldn't it be great to be able to take your pet dog with you everywhere? I mean, they do really help make our lives better, right? Maybe you suffer from depression, or anxiety, or any other condition that your dog really just helps you deal with on a daily basis. It would be nice if that was enough to call your dog a service dog, but unfortunately, it is not.
As a Dog Trainer, who has worked with and trained service dogs, fake service dogs are very easy to spot. Additionally, the inappropriate behaviors that a dog displays are often more than enough grounds for a business owner or manager to legally ask for the dog to be removed from the business property.
If I decided to bring a service dog into a public establishment that does not normally allow pets and my dog performs any behavior that is considered inappropriate, the person in charge of the business can legally ask me to remove my dog from the business.
**The business must allow me to still purchase my items after the dog has been removed.
Inappropriate behaviors could include, but not limited to:
Disrupting property through physical contact (wagging tail even)
Picking up items without permission or cue
Even excessive drooling
Service dogs should not be sitting on any furniture, benches, merchandise or riding in a shopping cart.
Service dogs should not be sitting at the table.
Service dogs should not be permitted to receive attention from anyone but their handler.
Service dogs should not be out of control.
Service dogs should not be required to carried in order to be kept under control.
Service dogs should not need to ride in a stroller or cart.
Service dogs should not be off leash unless a leash would prevent their ability to safely perform their specified tasks.
However, just because a service dog makes a mistake, or has a moment of poor judgement, doesn't mean that the dog is not a real service dog, but even in those moments, they may be asked to leave.
**Just because a dog is behaving poorly, does not require that the manager to ask them to leave either.
What's the big deal?
Bringing a dog into a public space, and that dog is not an appropriate or trained service dog, can be a nuisance and sometimes even dangerous. Any dog that demonstrates or has a history of fear or aggression in any way are a potential liability to other people and as well as highly trained appropriate service dogs.
The more fake or inappropriate service dogs present problems in public locations, this could potentially change the laws and regulations that allow people with legitimate needs for service dogs from being able to obtain or have service dogs.
Real Service Dogs
Service Animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities act 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.
So, by this definition, if you have a dog, that has learned to perform a task that addresses a symptom of a disability, you could legally call them a service dog.
If you decide that your dog is a service dog because it has learned a task to assist with a disability and you decide to take your dog into a public place that is not normally pet friendly and your dog demonstrates any of the behaviors listed under the inappropriate behaviors list, your dog is not longer entitled to public access and may be legally asked to leave the establishment.
Now, dogs are not perfect and even very well trained dogs to make mistakes and may be asked to leave. But this does not mean that they are never allowed to return. If they come back at a later time and are able to behave appropriately, there should be no reason for the business to ask them to leave.
What is not a Service Dog?
Emotional Support Animals are animals that help alleviate the symptoms of a psychiatric or behavioral health condition. These dogs do not require any specialized training, but are not authorized or legally allowed public access. Helping you feel better when you are anxious or depressed by petting your dog is not a service task.
Therpy dogs are dogs trained to be appropriate therapy animals for people other than the handler. Therapy dogs are intended to help individuals in hospitals, nursing home, assisted living homes, and hospice care. These dogs once they have met all requirements are allowed access to hospitals and care facilities once they have establisehd a working relationship with the organization. These dogs are not authorized general public access to private organizations or businesses not associated with health or wellness.
Service Dogs in-Training are dogs in the training process to become service dogs. Service dogs may be allowed to enter non-pet friendly establishments on a case by case basis. Businesses are not required to allow access to service dogs in-training, but dogs that are able to behave appropriately may be allowed to train in public spaces, and may be asked to leave at any time.
Personal Protection Dogs are dog trained to actively use controlled aggression to deter and prevent a legitimate threat to their handler. Any dog that has been trained to use aggression as a form of guarding or to take down or apprehend a violent threat should never be considered as a service dog.
Task trained pets! We often teach our pets to do fun tasks that can make our lives a little easier. Teaching our dogs to fetch a drink from the fridge or turn the lights on and off can help us in our daily routine, but unfortunately does not make them service dogs.
The Necessity of Service Dogs
If we really think about many of the service dogs and the tasks that they are trained to perform, the vast majority of the tasks are able to be performed by inanimate assistance devices to serve the same purpose.
Hearing Assistance/Alert Dogs - Hearing Aids
Mobility Support - Canes and Walkers
Wheelchair Pulling - Motorized Wheelchair
Diabetic Alert - Blood Sugur Test Kit
Deep Pressure Therapy - Compression Vests
Retrieve - Handheld Grabber Reaching Tool
Anxiety / Panic Attack Alert - Blood pressure and heart monitor
While everyone has a choice as to which device they would prefer to use, many of the reasons people offer as to why they would prefer to have the service dog over the other assistance device does not directly relate to the effectiveness or reliability of the device rather the fact that they like to bring their dog with them.
Assistance devices are far more likely to be covered by health insurance, but even if a device isn't covered, assistance devices have far more benefits over service animals.
They are immediately effective
Less likely to become a nuisance to strangers in public
Do you need a service dog?
Did you know that you can train your pet to do fun things that can help alleviate the symptoms of your disability without necessarily bringing them with you everywhere you go?
We often train our pet dogs to do fun things like fetch us drinks, turn on the lights, fetch our shoes or a news paper, and even wake us from a bad dream! Our dogs don't even need to be perfectly well-behaved.
If you want your dog to wake you in the event of a nightmare this could be considered a task trained dog, and could technically meet the ADA's definition as a service dog, but your dog doesn't need to go with you to the corner store or for you to successfully navigate your daily routine.
Requirements on the Handler
While some service dogs may be a better option with the appropriate breeding, whelping, selection, training, and vetting, service dogs can require a higher level and standard of upkeep than your average pet.
Service dog handlers must:
Keep their dog in good health and body condition
Maintain high level of grooming standards
Have regular refresher training and proofing
Remain up to date on ADA Service Dog Laws
Take responsibility for dog's behaviors and/or failures
Understand when to "wash" or retire a service dog
Communicate consistently with the service dog organization where the dog was obtained
Service dogs handlers must keep their dog under control at all times. And service dogs, even when they are reliably off-leash obedient are not exept from local leash laws. Your dog is not legally exempt from being on leash just because they are a service dog:
A service animal must be under the control of its handler. Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless the individual’s disability prevents using these devices or these devices interfere with the service animal's safe, effective performance of tasks. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
Service Dog Expectations
If you feel that a service dog is THE BEST option to assist with your disability, you should not expect the process of getting one to be inexpensive, fast, or easy.
Reputable service dog providers and trainers understand that there is an exceptionally long list of factors that go into finding, selecting, training, and proofing a service dog before it is ever ready to be allowed "Public Access" with their new handler.
Service Dogs are Made, Not Found
No reputable or experienced service dog trainer would entertain the idea of selecting a dog from a shelter or rescue to train to be a service dog. Quality and reliable service dogs are bred from generations of quality and reliable service dogs.
Temperament and behavior qualities of dogs are deeply engrained in their genetics. By taking two dogs who have proven to be great quality service dogs and breeding them together, you are likely to get a litter of dogs who have the qualities that make them suitable for service dog training.
From the moment the puppies are born, they receive treatment and training to prepare them for a life as service dogs. While many of the things that the service dog breeders do for the puppies during whelping and their upbringing are things that would generally make well mannered pets, they are far more important for the future success of service dogs.
Puppies intended for service work should receive deliberate and controlled exposure to the world in ways that will help desensitize them to many of the things that they will experience as adult dogs.
After whelping, the puppies immediately begin training for their specific line of work, whether it be a detection or alert dog, guide dog, or a task and mobility assistance dog. Each line of work may require different foundational training to prepare the dog for their future jobs.
The most important part throughout the whole process is understanding when to "Wash out" a dog. This means that despite coming from ideal genetics, receiving the necessary training, and doing everything to prepare the dog for service work, they still may not be the proper dog for the job. These dogs can then be sold or adopted out as great quality pets and companion dogs, but not as service dogs.
Obtaining a Quality and Effective Service Dog
So you have thought long and hard about your current situation and have decided that a service dog is right for you, what next?
First, find a dedicated service dog organization.
Be prepared to explore organizations that are not located near you, in your state, or even in the same region!
Be prepared to provide medical documentation and a medical professional's recommendation for a service dog including details about your disability, symptoms, and the proposed service dog tasks to be trained
Be prepared to possibly pay a lot of money for a service dog
Be prepared to WAIT! Service dogs take months and years to breed, select, and train for your specific task(s). Additionally, with the high demand for service dogs, you may be on a wait list for two years or more.
Service dogs are a privledge and may not be accessable to all individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately this is also the case for many other types of medical care and treatment.
Now That You know
Now that you know what makes a good and necessary service dog versus a dog that should not be a service dog, what should you do?
What should you do if you see a "fake" or inappropriate service dog in a public place?
It is not your responsibility to protect someone else's business or property. It is also no your job to accost someone trying to pass off their pet as their service dog. Presenting these people with facts, laws, policy, or the information in this blog is extremely unlikely to change their mind and would only cause them embarrassment.
It would only be acceptable to address the person with the dog if their dog is directly impacting you or someone with you inappropriately (and being salty about them having a fake service dog does not qualify as directly impacting you).
What you should do with this information is to use this to help you determine if a service dog may be right for you or a loved one, and if you decide that a service dog would be the best choice for that person, how to go about obtaining a service dog the right way.
How to determine if you need a service dog?
The first thing to ask yourself if you are considering a service dog is whether there is any other alternative to address your needs. You and your medical professional should decide as a team whether a service dog is the right choice for you.
Once you and a medical professional (that is familiar with your condition) believe that a service dog is the best option for you, the medical professional should be able to provide a specific and detailed description of the sign or symptom that will cue the dog to perform a trained task, as well as specifically what the dog should do including the duration, intensity, and follow-on behaviors if needed.
Once you have this information, you should contact a dedicated service dog organization. Some provide service dogs at no cost, others may be covered by health insurance, while others may require you to pay out of pocket. The important thing is that you choose an organization that works closely with breeders to breed and select dogs dedicated to service dog work from the moment of conception.
If you find yourself saying "I want a (insert breed or color) for my service dog" you need to reconsider why you want a service dog. You should be looking to get the right dog that will be the best solution for you disability regardless of the breed, age, size, or color.
Be prepared to make sacrifices to get the right dog. You may need to travel at your own cost to get your service dog. You will likely be expected to participate in service dog handler training and on-boarding which could potentially take weeks or months of immersive training. You will likely be required to return in the future for refresher training and reevalution of your dog's performance regularly.
A service dog's training initially will take up to 2 or more years. Dogs cannot be expected to work effectively once they reach their old age, which for dogs could be as early as 7-8 years old. This means you may only get 5 years of work out of your service dog before it will be time to start the process again.
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