Anyone who knows me or any member of my family knows we’re lovers of dogs. Actually, most of my family are lovers of animals. (Not literally; in a platonic sense.) I’m a HUGE proponent of animal adoption, the ASPCA, and hate the number of breeders that exist. There is no reason at all to buy a dog, with the number that is euthanized each and every hour of every day of every year. It’s tragic. And beyond dogs, there are few animals I haven’t had and cared for, including an alligator.

I’ve spent over 45 years now, usually with at least one dog around and often many more. I’ve helped care for 11 dogs at once, 8 being puppies, and if I could, I’d take care of as many as possible. I recently had a dog I adopted from the Asheville, NC animal shelter and she lived well past 16 years old – almost 17 years, which is uncommon for a Retriever/German Shepherd mix. I’m still trying to get over her passing and the reason I don’t run out and adopt another as people suggest is that dealing with her death was so difficult. I had to do it alone and it was awful. I can’t imagine going through that again.

Getting off topic, but I wanted to establish that I have a heart for dogs. And people that genuinely need service animals. But I’ve noticed as the internet ages, the number of “service dogs” has grown. And many of these dogs aren’t legitimate – people buy vests and obtain letters online for dogs that are not service dogs just so they can take them places they typically cannot, for good reasons.

fake service dog

Businesses and parks and airlines and other public spaces restrict animals for some common sense reasons. Uncertified animals can attack people, including children that might touch them and startle them, prompting them to bite. It’s how I’ve been bitten twice in the face by dogs as a child. They urinate and defecate on merchandise. They defy sanitation rules in restaurants. And on and on. Some people have allergies to dogs, so bringing them on an airplane to be nearby for hours is inconsiderate, to say the least. Some dogs attack other dogs, including actual service dogs, which are expensive, and serve an actual purpose, beyond a pet.

Training service dogs can cost up to $25,000. There are several types of “services” dogs may offer. Actual service dogs have been trained to do things for their disabled partners that humans can’t do themselves and they’re allowed, by law just about anywhere their handlers go with a few exceptions.

therapy dog, on the other hand, is trained to provide comfort to people, usually non-family members, in need of affection and interaction and is not an official service dog. There are specific certifications required for therapy dogs, but they are not entitled to any of the privileges of service dogs.

Somewhere between these two fall emotional support dogs (ESD), that provide comfort for their handlers with a disability by their mere presence. They have no training to perform tasks and don’t qualify as service dogs, but they still have some access rights. They must be allowed in all housing and in airplanes. However they aren’t entitled to enter businesses and other public places where dogs are usually prohibited, and owners may be required to present a signed note from a mental health professional stating a need for the ESD.

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) does qualify as a service dog. A PSD helps its handler cope with mental disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia. They may alert panic attacks, help with mobility if the handler is dizzy from medication, remind the handler to take medication, interrupt self-mutilation, provide room searches or safety checks, or perform a variety of tasks specific to that handler’s needs.

This past week I took my 3-year-old daughter to a playground that also has a water facility, or “sprayground.” Kids love it and there were probably around 60-80 kids running around playing. No dogs are allowed in the fenced area, for good reasons, save service dogs. As we approached the playground, a family was leaving with their “service dog” which was some type of pit bull mix with another, much larger breed, producing about a 100-pound pit bull. With a service dog vest. 60-80 rowdy kids running around. A recipe for disaster.

I know it’s argued you can’t spot a fake service dog vs. a real one. But 99% of the time, you can if you know anything about dog behavior and watch the “service” dog for a while. You can tell if they’ve been trained to be service dogs or not. Most service dog breeds will be a retriever, German Shepherd, greyhound or a breed well-known for their gentle demeanor. (Not all, but the vast majority.) You can tell by their focus on their owner and on the tasks at hand, and not distracted by noises, children, or whatever most other dogs will be distracted by. They’re working dogs, at work.

I’ve even worked with a lady who claimed to have PTSD from some nameless event and desired to bring her dog to work. Her dog was very sweet, and I love having dogs around at work. So my point here isn’t that I don’t want dogs around. Personally, I’m generally more than fine with it. But there are employees who don’t like dogs, are allergic or have some legitimate reason to not want a dog there. And I was 99% certain the “service dog” was a fake and the vest was a costume purchased online. And her desire conflicted with certain other employees which caused an unnecessary personal conflict at work.

service dog

Entire websites are devoted to selling service dog identifications along with providing handy tips (once you’ve paid their registration fee) on what to say if confronted. The websites offer links to questionable psychiatric services that will provide you with a letter stating you need an emotional support dog pending your responses to an online test and a couple of phone sessions.

There are immediate problems I’ve stated about fake service dogs. But another more concerning problem is that the general public was once fine with allowing the few legitimate service dogs for the blind and serious needs. However, when fake service dogs begin to increase in number for less serious “needs” that dogs can’t even be tested to serve for, like seizures or diabetes, and untrained dogs attack people, other dogs, including legitimate service dogs, then the general public will grow more disdainful towards these people and their animals. Unrecognizable symptomatic conditions have been tacked on over recent years, while businesses have become (sadly) gunshy about questioning animal handlers for fear of lawsuits. They can legally only ask 2 questions:

1) Is the dog needed because of a disability?

2) What task has the dog been trained to perform to mitigate the disability?

Anything beyond that and you’re pushing your luck.