Blog  >  Fake Service and Emotional Support Dogs on the Rise - How to Tell the Difference

Fake Service and Emotional Support Dogs on the Rise - How to Tell the Difference

While you make think it’s fun and a harmless lark to parade your smart pooch around in a fake vest or harness, this is not an innocent trick without consequences.

Service dogs and the people they help have always garnered the upmost respect and admiration, but in this new age of entitlement and self-serving attitudes, this is sadly no longer the case.

In many places now, service dogs are eyed with suspicion and in some instances, treated with hostility. The explosion of fake service dogs in the last five years has caused severe collateral damage to the real service dogs and their owners.

According to Service Dog Central, there are between 100,000 and 200,000 legitimate service dogs in the United States. These dogs are invaluable to the people they help. The independence and emotional support these dogs provide to their owners is often life-saving. According to Fran Jewell, an IAABC Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and NADOI Certified Obedience and Tracking Instructor, “A service dog goes through 300-400 hours of training…losing such a dog can be a huge financial and emotional loss for their owners”. It costs an estimated $40,000 to properly train a dog for a blind person, even a regular service dog can cost upwards of $20,000 to train.

While you make think it’s fun and a harmless lark to parade your smart pooch around in a fake vest or harness, this is not an innocent trick without consequences, just ask Fran, who is trying to help a dog recover from an unfortunate encounter with a fake service dog. “Onyx is a dog I trained for a blind woman over four years ago. The guide skills this dog has are incredible. She has enabled her owner to live independently and go anywhere she wants…until now. Onyx was attacked by a pit bull (wearing a service dog vest) in a grocery store about a year ago and I’m still trying to help her recover. Her owner can no longer rely on her because of her fear of other dogs.”

How Do You Spot a Fake Service Dog?

There is a lot of confusion, even among veterinarians and other professionals, about what constitutes a legitimate service dog. With the high number of emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and puppies in training, it can make it difficult to tell the difference. This chart can help you distinguish between the different types of dogs. One of the best ways to determine whether or not a dog is a genuine service dog, according to most authorities, is to observe their behavior. A real service dog will appear alert, but calm, doesn’t jump or bark, they obey owners commands promptly, perform tasks and lie down passively when instructed.

It is becoming increasingly important for business owners to educate themselves about service dogs, in order to keep from discriminating against true service dogs and their dependent owners. Too many times, fake service dogs make life much harder for the business owner. No one wants to eat at a restaurant where a dog is barking…or worse.

There is a big difference between the emotional support animal and a true service dog. Fran Jewell explains, “Emotional support dogs do not have the privilege of entry into public places, only airlines that allow it and public housing. But, then, most people think that an ESA (emotional support animal) can go anywhere like a service dog can, and they cannot.” The definition of an emotional support dog is: “A dog or other animal whose sole function is to provide comfort or provides emotional support to its owner.”

The explosion of these ESAs and the claims people make have caused repercussions across the public arena. Everything from peacock and pigs to turkeys and miniature horses have tried to board planes or enter other public places as ESAs. Clearly, new guidelines need to be set and because people continue to push the limits on pets’ access to public places like restaurants, airlines and shopping malls, businesses are beginning to push back. Just recently Delta airlines banned all emotional support animals from their flights of more than eight hours, United soon followed suit. Legitimate service dogs are still allowed, but with the all-out battle on fake ‘support’ animals, it has made the climate less agreeable for the people who need these services.



The US Department of Justice says that you are only permitted to ask two questions when you encounter a dog with its owner in a public place where pets are not permitted:

1. Is this a service dog required because of disability?

2. What is it trained to do to mitigate the disability?

If an owner shows you a ‘certificate or ID card’, to try and enter your establishment, it is almost certainly a fake service dog. According to Nick Kutsukos who runs Elite K9 Academy in Jupiter, Florida and has trained service dogs for forty years, “I don’t want to say it’s a scam, but it is a scam.”

Getting a certificate, vest or collar, ID tags or cards is as easy as filling out a form online and sending in your money. And, there are plenty of companies lined up to help you with your fraudulent claims who sell fake certifications, vests, etc. For a list go to Service Dog Central.

Note: Not a single service listed tests the dogs they certify, register, or ID. They do nothing to verify the dog's training or the owner's disability. Some of the more outrageous claims from these ‘certification sites’ are:

"This is a site designed to assist disabled people in obtaining a valid certification and ID card for their service dog so that you can take it on public transportation, into public places such as restaurants, grocery stores, etc."

"Service Dog Certification of America recognizes that every person in The United States of America may have some form of disability."

How Widespread is the Problem of Fake Service Dogs?

Jeanine Konopelski, Canine Companions for Independence Director of Marketing, says that the problem is reaching epidemic proportions. Out of 1,000 graduates of Canine Companions, 87% of their assistance dog teams have encountered a fake, questionable or uncontrolled ‘service dog’, 66% have had an uncontrolled dog interfere with, distract, snap at or bite at their service dog, 20% feel their quality of life or independence has been moderately to severely impacted by fraudulent service dogs.

Also, we see that there are two types of fraud when it comes to service dogs, intentional and non-malicious. Intentional fraud occurs when a pet owner knowingly represents a pet as a service dog, either visibly with a vest or credentials, or verbally, for the purpose of bringing a pet dog into places that pets are not allowed. Non-malicious fraud occurs when a pet owner unintentionally misrepresents a pet as a service dog because they are mimicking others who bring pets in non-pet-friendly venues. The dog doesn’t wear a vest or purport to be a service dog.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has clear guidelines in place explaining appropriate behavioral standards for service dogs. Service dogs must behave in a safe and controlled manner and should never be aggressive.

What Can You Do?

If you see a dog out of control or being aggressive, locate a manager and ask that the dog be removed from the premises if the handler cannot take steps to remedy the problem. Educate others about what constitutes a legitimate service dog. Remember that a service dog is not a pet; it is a highly trained assistant and guardian for their owner. When you encounter a service dog, be polite, but resist the urge to reach out and pet the dog. By doing this seemingly harmless action, you may distract the animal or stress it, putting its human charge at risk. Keep your distance if you can and don’t talk to the dog, direct any comments you have to the owner and remember, these dogs are on the job…not just out for a stroll.

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