It seems like service dogs are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve, with increased public understanding and awareness of what these amazing animals do. However, this rise in awareness seems to have come hand-in-hand with a problem: people falsely presenting their pets, using fake service dog registration sites.
Alert! Service Dog Registration Is Not Real
On one hand, we have real service dogs, which are highly trained dogs that assist people with disabilities in day-to-day tasks, helping them to maintain independence and enjoy a better quality of life.
A fake service dog, on the other hand, are simply pets whose owners have decided to call “service animals” in order to bring them more places or avoid paying pet rates in rented accommodation or on airplanes.
Let us be very clear: not only is this behavior antisocial and damaging for people who rely on real service animals, but it is also illegal in many states. See below for more information on the laws regarding a fake service dog.
Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important piece of legislation aimed at protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and ensuring that they have equal access to businesses and public places. The ADA protects the rights of people with service dogs to bring them to public places like shops, restaurants, hotels, and more.
However, the ADA’s definition of a service animal is very particular. Firstly, only dogs can qualify, and secondly, all service animals must be individually trained to perform specific tasks to aid a person with a disability.
These tasks might include acting as a guide dog or hearing dog for people with visual or hearing impairments, assisting with mobility-related tasks for wheelchair users, or sensing and alerting about oncoming seizures.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are different from service animals in two important ways. Firstly, while service dogs must be specially trained, an emotional support animal does not need any specific training, just a special bond with its owner.
Secondly, while the rules on who qualifies for a service dog are quite open to interpretation, there is only one way to get an emotional support animal, and that is to be prescribed one by a licensed mental health professional. More on that below.
Service Dog Certification is Not Needed… Or Recognized!
Let us state categorically that there is no official database or register of service animals. Though some local authorities have their own in place to protect people with disabilities, these are not compulsory.
Service dog owners are not required to get or carry any kind of service dog certificate, and businesses are not allowed to ask for one.
Similarly, there is no centralized test or certification process for service animals, though the charities or organizations that train service dogs all have their own testing process to see if a dog is ready to become a service dog.
Although there are numerous websites offering to certify or register service dogs and emotional support animals, these services are not in any way legitimate proof of an assistance animal’s status, nor are they recognized under the ADA. Getting a certificate or even a service dog vest does not make a pet a service dog.
Service Dog and Emotional Support Dog Vest: They’re Not Inter-Changeable
Just as buying a service animal vest doesn’t automatically make your dog into a service animal, buying an emotional support animal vest does not make your pet into an ESA.
For emotional support animals:
The only way to get an ESA is to be prescribed one by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you. If the LMHP believes you could benefit from having an emotional support animal, they will write you an ESA letter, which will state that you have been diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability and that your ESA is necessary for your treatment.
The letter will also give details of the LMHP’s license.
Although some people choose to put their emotional support animal in a harness or vest identifying them as such in addition to getting an ESA letter, the letter is the most important part, and the only legitimate way of proving that your animal is an ESA.
Spotting the Fakes Just like Service Animals! There’s No Such thing Legitimate Emotional Support Animal Registration
In the same way that the online services offering to certify or register service animals aren’t real or recognized by the ADA, neither are those that offer this service for emotional support animals. Don’t waste your money on these services, as they are not recognized in any way, and you might find yourself having to make some last-minute living or travel rearrangements.
The Penalty for Placing a Service Dog Vest on a Pet!
In the following states, it is illegal to falsely present a pet as a service animal:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
Sentences vary from state to state, but can include hefty fines, community service, and even jail sentences.
Faking a Mental and Physical Illness is Not Cool! So Get a Service or Emotional Support Dog the Right Way
Due to the fact that physical and especially mental illnesses are not, some unscrupulous people will try to imitate the symptoms of a physical or mental illness in order to get a service or emotional support animal
However, not only is this practice insulting for people who live with very the very real consequences of mental illnesses day-in, day-out, but it is also more likely to make life difficult for people who need service dogs to get them. For every badly behaved or disruptive fake service dog, another business will be reluctant to accept them.
If you feel that you need support in handling the symptoms of a mental illness or emotional disability, an emotional support dog could be better for you. Just make sure that you get one in the proper way: in consultation with a licensed mental health professional.
Service Dog Requirements are Hard – A Fake Service Dog Can do More Harm than Good
Fake service dogs can be harmful for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Badly trained or unsocialized fake service dogs are often reported for attacking real, working service dogs, especially in cramped spaces that are not set up to accommodate pets other than service animals.
- Badly behaved fake service dogs are hugely damaging to public perceptions of service animals. Many service dog handlers have stories of being turned away from businesses where a fake service dog has made a nuisance of itself previously, causing the business owners to adopt a resolute “no-animals” policy, even though this is against the law.
- As we’ve established, ESAs and service animals are different, with different rights and most importantly, different training. However, people trying either to pass a pet off as an ESA, or an ESA off as a service animal, has led to confusion between the two, with people believing them interchangeable. Once again, this makes life more difficult for people who rely on their legitimate service dogs.
- One of the most basic rules regarding service dogs is “never touch or otherwise attempt to distract a service dog while it’s wearing its harness or working.” However, when people pass their pets off as fake service animals, they often allow members of the public to pet or feed them. This gives people the false impression that they can touch any service animal at any time. Not only does this distracting the service dogs from their duties, but it could even endanger their handlers’ lives.
A Service Dog Harness Indicates a Well-Trained Working Dog!
Service dogs have to go through rigorous training before they’re ready to help people with disabilities. This training encompasses not only the specific task or tasks they will carry out, but also things like remaining calm in public, not interacting with other people while wearing their harness, and not getting distracted while on duty.
Service dogs are selected for intelligence, obedience, and temperament, and anyone who has ever seen a trained service dog at work will tell you just how amazing these animals are, even in the face of adversity.
A Real Service Dog Ensures the Pooch is of Good Behavior
Fake service dogs, meanwhile, do not have the benefit of this expert training. While they may be loving pets and may have even passed basic obedience training, it is simply against most dogs’ natures not react to an outside stimulus like food or another dog.
Serious training from a very young age to break these habits and regular pets will not be able to behave like service animals in stressful situations.
Don’t Break the Law
This is an incredibly selfish attitude that benefits no one. In addition, when you consider that pet-friendly businesses—from hotels to bars, department stores to restaurants—are becoming more and more common, it hardly seems necessary to cause so much trouble.