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Fakers Damage the Rep of Legitimate Service Dogs

In 2012, a six-year-old child in Kentucky was killed by what family friends called their “medical service dog.”

In Colorado, a “service dog” viciously attacked another dog and then turned on his former owner when she tried to intervene, biting her several times.

Families desperate to improve their children’s lives are taken in by extravagant promises of “trained diabetic alert dogs,” who will signal to the parents when their young children have changes in blood sugar levels, even at a great distance. These families have, in some cases, paid hefty fees for what turned out to be untrained puppies as young as eight weeks old.

Shoppers at a supermarket are disgusted when they see a dog licking yogurt containers in the dairy section, and restaurant diners complain of dogs sitting on chairs and licking the cutlery. When they notify management, these customers are told that the dogs are service dogs so, “There is nothing we can do.”

These anecdotes, gleaned from news accounts, are examples of a growing problem: fake service dogs are everywhere. This unfortunate situation has two primary causes. First, unscrupulous or unprofessional trainers – some who are actually trying to help, others who are only interested in making money – claim that unsuitable, immature, or poorly-trained dogs are service dogs.

The second cause of this growing problem is people who, thinking they are hurting nobody, purchase official-looking vests and ID cards to disguise their pets as service dogs so they can take them along wherever they go.

In both cases, stressed-out dogs, not trained for or temperamentally unsuited for public access, are out there. In restaurants and coffee shops, airports and malls, supermarkets and schools.

“Why shouldn’t I be able to take my dog when I go out for coffee” some ask. Why would anyone pretend to have a disability, others wonder. Would people really do that? Yes, they would and they do, and in increasing numbers.

In an article published last year in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy, which I coauthored with guide dog partner Deni Elliott, we cited a dozen specific examples — but we have read or heard personal accounts of many more.

One unfortunate result of the fake service dog proliferation is that legitimate service dogs are getting a lot more scrutiny and questioning, creating an intrusive and infuriating burden for people with disabilities who are simply going about the business of daily life. Another effect is that when people see such dogs behaving badly, the public perception of the legitimacy and professionalism of authentic service dogs suffers.

A far more serious consequence, though, is illustrated by some of the anecdotes above. Fake service dogs are a public safety hazard. Simply put, not all dogs are cut out to be service dogs. A snazzy vest does not turn your pet into a service dog — even if you have a very real disability.

Dogs who have the right temperament to work in public still need extensive exposure and specific training before they can safely work as service dogs in public. Those who lack the right temperament or who have not been trained can be stressed and frightened by the overwhelming noisiness, smelliness, and general strangeness of life in public spaces.

These upset dogs often become aggressive – lunging, snarling, and even biting out of fear. Other dogs are encouraged to “protect” their human partners — which they might do by attacking other people or dogs who come too close.

Proposed solutions to the problem of fakers range from requiring a public access test to creating a universal identification method for service dogs, on the model of accessible parking placards. Another approach to the problem is to restrict the online sale of service dog vests.

All of these could help, but the best solution is education — teaching people about the rights and responsibilities of business owners and members of the public, as well as those of service dog users. For example, business owners are legally allowed to ask people to remove a dangerous or misbehaving dog, even if the dog is a legitimate service dog.

A great resource for business owners and managers is the Berkeley disability compliance website, where, as part of the “Service Dogs Welcome” initiative (see Bay Woof’s July 2013 article), the city has posted detailed information about service dog access.

In August, in time for Service Dog Appreciation Week, STAR Dog Network – an organization of people promoting responsible service dog partnerships – will launch an educational website offering resources to business owners, trainers, and the public about service dog access and training.

Whatever the eventual combination of solutions, members of the dog-owning public can help by respecting the work that trained service dogs do, by researching the source when they are in need of a service dog, and, especially, by not passing off their pets as service dogs. If you want to take your dog out for coffee, patronize one of the many pet-friendly Bay Area businesses or check Bay Woof’s listing of dog-friendly events.

Finally, before you go out in public together, consider the potential challenges for your dog — and consider signing up for a Canine Good Citizen or public pets training course.

Pamela S. Hogle is a co-founder of STAR Dog Network (website pending), an instructor at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, and a service dog trainer with 12 years of dog-handling experience.

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Main article photo by: Courtesy of Bergin University of Canine Studies