PDPM > About Service Dogs > Misrepresenting Pets as Service Dogs
Stormy the Papillon is not a service dog and his owner doesn’t try to misrepresent him as one. In this photo, he is simply acting as a model to portray the all too common trend among some dog owners who claim that their pet dogs are service dogs, just so they can take them everywhere.
Pets Being Misrepresented as Service Dogs
Depending on where you live, you may be accustomed to seeing people routinely bringing their pet dogs into businesses, that are not pet friendly, and claiming that their dogs are service dogs. This leaves business owners to feel they have no recourse; even when the dog is misbehaving! There is no specific demographic who can be singled out for taking part in this behavior. There are plenty of teenage girls who try to emulate celebrities, by using small dogs as fashion accessories. However, there are also countless people, both men and women, who own dogs of every variation of size and breed, who try to get away with bringing their pets into places like grocery stores, shopping malls, restaurants and other places of public accommodation that are not pet friendly. These individuals cry wolf -or should we say, “service dog”- when they are asked to remove their dogs from these places.
Individuals, who are part of the “fake service dog,” movement, have earned the title of “fakers.” from some members of the legitimate service dog community. The term, “faker,” has become a derogatory term among service dog handlers and others within the disabled community. While it is not the most politically correct term, it is certainly poignant.
Only people with disabilities have federally protected rights to be accompanied by their service dogs in places of public accommodation. Therefore, not only are people who falsely claim that pets are service dogs misrepresenting their dogs, but by doing so, they are also inherently claiming to have a disability.
What’s So Wrong About Misrepresenting Pets as Service Dogs?
The vast majority of people who misrepresent their pet dogs as service dogs simply do so to gain access to places that normally restrict pets. All they want is to spend more time with their loving companions. They do not take the time to think about how their actions affect others, but the unfortunate reality is that the entire service dog community suffers.
The manner in which most legitimate service dog teams conduct themselves is in direct contrast to that of pet owners, who misrepresent their dogs as service dogs. As this trend increases, so does the skepticism of the general public, as well as business owners.
When business owners, employees and the general public doubt the legitimacy of a service dog team, a ripple effect is created. The act of misrepresenting a pet as a service dog is one of the primary factors that are responsible for the prevalence of access challenges to legitimate service dog teams. Access challenges, especially those which are not resolved quickly and smoothly, can be the beginning of very negative and psychologically tolling experiences, for service dog teams. The worst case scenario of an access challenge, despite its illegality, is one that is not resolved; resulting in substantial, undue stress for the service dog team.
As a result of people who misrepresent their pets as service dogs, legitimate service dog teams face an increased degree of discrimination, in forms beyond access challenges. Business owners, employees and gatekeepers are likely to hold legitimate service dog teams to the low standard of behavior that has been set by their previous experiences with pets, who have been misrepresented as service dogs. Some examples of these other forms of discrimination are:
Service dog teams inevitably receive discrimination in some form, on a regular basis; whether it is a result of others’ thoughtless behavior or simply because a business owner doesn’t like dogs, doesn’t want his or her business to be associated with the disabled community or has some other ridiculous notion. However, it is certainly worth taking the time to reflect upon just how significantly a seemingly harmless act can affect the lives of an entire subculture, within a particular area.
Identifying a Legitimate Service Dog Team: Observing Both Dog and Handler
(First, and foremost, it must be noted that what is generally the norm, within the service dog community, is not necessarily legally required of service dog teams.)
¹It is usually easy to tell the difference between a legitimate service dog team and a person who is accompanied by a pet dog, if one knows what to look for. However, the vast majority of people have not had encounters with legitimate service dog teams, which prevents them from having a standard to keep in mind. They are also not likely to be cognizant that there are people who do not have a disability, but misrepresent their pet dogs as service dogs, just to have their pets around for companionship. This does nearly irreparable damage to the general public’s perception of service dog teams, for the following reasons:
- Pet dogs generally do not behave nearly as well as service dogs do.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with a pet dog. Service dogs receive hundreds of hours of socialization, advanced obedience training and formal training to perform the jobs for which they were intended. A service dog’s training also includes learning appropriate behavior in a wide variety of public environments. Even a well-trained or well-mannered pet dog has only had so much socialization and intense obedience training.
A person accompanied by his or her pet dog will generally have their act given away, when the dog demonstrates poor basic obedience skills, noncompliance to the owner’s commands or other undesirable behaviors.
This isn’t to say that a dog who manifests any of the aforementioned traits should automatically be assumed to be the pet dog of a person who does not have a disability. Even service dogs have “off days,” when they may not be performing to their potential. Click here to read about more ways to identify a true service dog.
While it is certainly within the realm of possibility for a service dog to have an “off day,” or react inappropriately to a particular situation, it will typically be obvious, even to the untrained eye, whether or not the dog is a service dog. This method of differentiating between a pet dog owner and a legitimate service dog team, in a situation when a dog is out of control or not focusing on his handler, depends on assessing the behavior of the person, rather than the dog. A service dog handler will be savvy enough to address a problem with his or her service dog effectively, or remove the dog from the situation. A pet dog owner will likely remain, with an out of control dog.
-Owners of pet dogs typically do not know how to properly respond to an access challenge.
A pet dog owner may think he or she is prepared to defend the reason for the dog being there, but will not likely be well-versed in the laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs. In fact, an individual who is well-versed in the laws regarding people with disabilities who are partnered with service dogs, the person probably wouldn’t risk getting caught taking part in such behavior in the first place; as many states have laws against misrepresenting an animal as a service animal.
-Owners of pet dogs are not likely to observe “service dog handler etiquette.”
Pet dog owners are unlikely to realize that there are many things that they should and should not do, regarding their dogs, to be considerate of others. While it is possible, it would generally be unexpected for a legitimate service dog team to manifest the following characteristics or behaviors:
More on Service Dog Handler Etiquette Here
- Businesses can be proactive by learning how to identify someone who is misrepresenting a pet as a service dog.
This is based on the response the individual, who is accompanied by a dog, gives to an inquiry about the dog. Businesses can do so by educating themselves about relevant laws. Not only do people with disabilities have rights, but businesses are also protected by federal law and usually by state law, as well.
There are very specific limitations placed upon businesses and other places of public accommodation, regarding how they can go about determining whether a service dog team is legitimate, how they can treat a service dog team and for which reasons they can legally require a service dog to leave. A person who is accompanied by his or her pet dog almost definitely will not have an adequate grasp on these laws and will not be able to advocate for himself or herself.
- “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
It is important to realize that a person whose disability is not immediately apparent should not be reason to assume that the person does not have one. In other words, a person who appears to be free of disability, yet is accompanied by a service dog, can just as easily have a significant disability as someone with an obvious physical impairment.
Another example of the absence of something not being proof of foul play is identification. Not all service dogs are identified as such and federal law does not require them to be.
Other key points to remember:
- Service dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. A dog’s breed or size is not indicative of its validity of a service dog.
- Service dogs in training are the exception to some of the rules. Please read below for more information.
- Businesses CAN require handlers to remove service dogs from the environment under very specific circumstances.
Louie, the Papillon -the same breed as Stormy, the dog in the photo, at the top of the page- is in training to be a service dog. No hiding in purses for him!
Still Considering “Faking?”
“My dog is so small, he can fit in my purse and go unnoticed.”
Pet dogs who are carried in purses, in an attempt to be hidden, are rarely unnoticed. Even well-behaved small dogs who are hidden in purses can have an impact on the service dog community. Legitimate service dog teams, that include a toy breed dog are faced with increased scrutiny, because others perceive them as being among the many who sneak their pocket-sized pet dogs around.
“It would be so fun to have my dog with me all the time!”
If one were to ask a group of hundreds of service dog handlers whether they would rather have a disability, use a service dog to mitigate that disability and have the responsibility of caring for that service dog than live without a disability, and live independent lives, without their service dogs, the answer would be an enthusiastic, resounding, “No!”
Service dog partnership, while undoubtedly rewarding, in some ways, is hard work. Every day must planned out down to the hour, taking both the needs and limitations associated with the disability into consideration, as well as those of the service dog.
Handlers must be sure to have all necessary equipment to handle their service dogs, in addition to close to a myriad of other accessories and tools associated with having a dog accompany you 24/7.
Strict scheduling is often necessary, to have food, water and bathroom breaks available to the service dogs when they are necessary. This isn’t a simple task, when one has his or her dog constantly present.
The reality is, that, while it is enjoyable to have companionship of a service dog partner, it is equally as much of a responsibility. Many handlers compare it to having to plan for and care for a toddler, everywhere they go.
“My dog is very well trained and has good manners.”
Any dog owner who can honestly make this claim deserves credit. Raising a well-behaved dog is not an easy task and is often equated with raising a toddler. When dog owners make this statement in reference to taking their dogs into places that are not pet-friendly, planning to misrepresent their dogs as service dogs, there is usually a subtext of, “What harm could it do?”
If all the reasons why misrepresenting a pet as a service dog, that are listed above, are not sufficient incentive not to do so, it is worth pointing out some factors that you, as a responsible dog owner should care about.
How would your dog respond to a child rushing up to your dog and throwing his arms around him, giving the “nice doggie,” a big bear hug, at the encouragement of his parents?
How would your dog respond to a woman shrieking in terror, as she turned the corner, horrified to find a dog where she would least expect to encounter one? What if, in her moment of terror, she instinctively kicked your dog?
How would your dog react to large, loud machinery being used to clean floors, move pallets or do renovations passing him, within inches?
How would your dog respond to being approached by someone with a significant disability, who looks and sounds different from any person your dog has ever encountered, possibly with medical equipment in use?
How would your dog respond to many items getting knocked off the top shelf, in a store, just barely missing your dog, on the way down?
How would your dog respond to someone who just plain dislikes dogs, intentionally hitting your dog with a vacuum, yet acting as if it were an accident?
Is your dog prepared for that which cannot be prepared? In an environment which can be too stimulating for even some people to tolerate, your dog can become grossly overwhelmed. Do you know your dog well enough to know whether or not to expect a fight or flight response and are you prepared to respond accordingly?
Do you know how laws on both the state and federal levels apply to you?
These are questions that we, as service dog handlers must ask ourselves and be confident in our answers, before being truly prepared to work with our service dogs in public places. It’s a tremendous weight to bear on one’s shoulders, in the interest of independence. We are all so privileged to have service dogs who are adequately prepared, not only to experience potentially stressful situations, without batting an eye, but also to take care of us, their handlers, while doing so.
¹Each state has its own laws that apply to service dogs in training. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not grant people with disabilities access to places of public accommodation with service dogs in training.
Service dogs in training are expected to make a mistake, here and there. That’s why they’re still in training. The behavioral standards that are implied on this page do not apply to service dogs in training, but, as a general rule a legitimate service dog in training team will demonstrate the control and consideration for others and the environment that a fully trained service dog team would.