In the US, service dogs are trained to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. They’re trained for hundreds of hours to help people with visual or hearing impairments, mental illnesses (such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder), seizure disorders, mobility impairment, and diabetes to name just a few.
Credit: Nutureline Calmdog
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states that any business, government agency, or not-for-profit organization that provides access to the general public must allow service dogs on the premises – ie ‘no pets’ policies have to be flexible. That’s because all restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxis, theaters, concert halls, sports facilities, etc are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities, and the same applies to their service dogs.
Most of the expenses associated with service dogs are deductible, and, sadly, a small but growing industry has mushroomed up online, selling fake service-dog certifications, tags, vests and ID cards to people looking to take advantage of the service dog benefits. For criminals, nothing appears sacred.
With absolutely no proof of an animal’s training or abilities, all a benefit thief needs to do is jump on any of the main online marketplaces that facilitate the sale of the counterfeit items, indicating that their dog is a ‘service dog’, ‘emotional support dog’, or ‘seizure alert dog’.
For a few dollars more, they can also buy an ominous legal-looking card saying they’re prepared to sue the skeptical restaurant owner who thinks their no-pets policy should apply to the (regular) dog in question.
Taking a quick look at Alibaba, there are currently over 5,000 results for ‘service dog vests’ and over 2,000 for ‘service dog tags’. You’ll also find service dog cards, holographic emotional support dog ID cards, leashes, collars, and more.
It’s not hard to spot a fake service dog. According to Modern Dog Magazine, there’s a big difference between the behavior of a service dog and that of, well, a ‘normal’ dog. Real service dogs are trained to assist the person, not protect them. They’re trained to be quiet, not bark or growl, and they’re never disruptive. A fake service dog, being just like any other dog, will get excitable and have protective tendencies, including barking at other dogs or even people. They can be disruptive, jump up on their owners and strangers, and hunt for scraps of food.
There are heavy fines for people caught in the act. In the US, it’s considered fraud to have a fake service dog, and anyone found guilty is punishable by up to six months in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
So next time you see a service dog jumping up on its owner or being a general nuisance, it’s likely it’s not the real deal. The best thing to do is report it, by contacting your local vet or the police.