“Imposter” Service Dogs

You Give Real Service Dogs a Bad Name!

By Kimberly Carnevale

Faking a disability or handicap is unethical and unacceptable

Recently, I’ve gained a new and unexpected clientele – business owners who believe that their establishment had been visited by (and in many cases, damaged by) “imposter” service dogs.

“Imposter” or “fake” service dogs are a growing problem throughout America. This is the canine version of illegally parking in a handicapped parking space. Many people have forgone any type of morality and have obtained vests and attached patches to illegally gain entry to public places with their pet dogs.

“This is the canine version of illegally parking in a handicapped parking space.”

Some offenders believe that their dog should be allowed to go with them everywhere and can’t see the harm in passing off just one dog. They know it is illegal, but do it anyway. Others believe they are justified because they have a disorder. Having their pet dog with them eases symptoms and they may even carry a doctor’s note.

The Federal law is very clear. For any type of service dog to accompany its partner in public, it must be trained to do specific tasks. There are an alarming number of handlers who have not done any required training of their dogs or learned the laws that govern service dog use. There is a difference between a pet and a service dog. Passing off any dog that is not specifically trained as per the Americans with Disability Act, state, and local laws is illegal and is a federal offense with carries federal penalties.

Emotional support dogs

These dogs serve a great and positive purpose, but they are not service dogs according to the law and are not permitted public access (Source: Psychiatric Service Dogs).

“Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks. Service animals are working animals, not pets”—United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division)

If a dog does nothing more than accompany a person into an establishment to “keep them focused” or “ease anxiety”, they are not in compliance with Federal law that plainly states and specifically requires task training. There are many tasks that a psychiatric service dog can learn to do to meet the legal requirements. (A full list is available at: http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html )

Imposters avoid the costs of training

It costs $15,000-$20,000.00 to train a service dog. Untrained pet dogs are simply not equipped to deal with many unforeseen public distractions that service dogs have been carefully and meticulously prepared for.

“The high cost reflects intensive and high level training that takes hundreds of hours that ensure the dog to be obedient and able to perform its job in a variety of situations.”

A growing number of imposters are simply (and illegally) mail ordering vests, slapping on patches and claiming their pet dog to be a service dog. They then have the audacity to dare anyone to confront them, claiming protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act – the very law that they are in violating.

There are also unscrupulous businesses making a profit on these fake service dogs, by offering to “certify” or “license” them – at a cost. There is no such “certification” or “licensing” approved by the Federal government. Many of these businesses set up their own standards and charge a fee online, without ever having seen the dog.

“…He admitted that he was not disabled, and that his dog was not (or ever would be) a service dog – he simply wanted to get a vest and claim service dog status to get into a no pets facility”

Where’s the harm?

Congress is fully aware of this issue and is currently reviewing a bill that tightens the ADA’s definition of a service dog and increases the severity of penalties in response to this growing, and potentially dangerous problem. They are coming down hard on offenders who are bending the ADA.

“…there are plenty potential disasters waiting to happen when close attention is not paid to the careful socialization and intense training that a service dog needs in order to be safe and effective in a public environment.”

Pet dogs that have not received the proper socialization, high-level obedience, and distraction training are apt to misbehave (or even bite) in high stress environments. Stores, movie theaters, restaurants and other public places are filled with stressors that most dogs have never encountered in their lives as a pet. There are no short cuts to introducing a dog to such things. Precise attention and hundreds of hours of careful training and socialization are the keys to producing a calm, consistent, and properly behaved service dog.

“…ill behavior from imposters give real service dogs a bad rap, and service dog handlers are having even more difficulties with access.”

Business owners have rights too

Business owners who have had experiences with imposter service dogs can be less than jubilant when a real service dog comes into their establishment, leaving the business-client relationship strained. It is critical that business owners be made aware of these imposter dogs, to learn how to protect their clientele and their business interests, while abiding by the law and protecting the rights of real teams.

To think that many people are “cheating,”  by passing off untrained (or barely trained) pets as service dogs, when so many handlers are spending incredible amounts of money and taking the time to properly train their service dog to the level of a highly-obedient and task-trained canine, is infuriating. The immorality of this issue propels me to set out on a new mission to right a tremendous wrong.

Business owners who suspect they have been invaded by an “imposter” service dog are not expected or required to sit idly by while damage occurs or the smooth running of an establishment is interrupted.

“Current law provides for stiff federal penalties (including heavy fines and jail time)—even for first time offenders.”

There are legal steps that can be taken to stop these imposters in their tracks and help recoup damages. If you are in doubt as to whether a dog is a real service dog, you may legally ask the following:

  1. Do you have a documented disability? (Note: you may not ask what the disability is.)
  2. Is that a trained service dog? If the answer is yes, and you still doubt the validity of the team; you may ask what tasks the dog has been specifically trained to do for the person with disabilities.

Any properly trained team has been fully versed in the law, knows their rights and responsibilities and will have no issue answering such questions. Alternatively, if a person balks at answering these questions, or becomes unreasonably defensive; you may be dealing with an imposter. You may want to consider phoning the police to intervene.

If the dog enters your establishment and exhibits any type of behavior not expected of a service dog (urinating/defecating, damaging goods, sniffing/bothering other customers, barking, growling, snapping, etc.) you are well within your rights to ask them to leave. If the dog or its equipment is not clean (visibly dirty or emits an unpleasant odor), you are within your rights to ask them to leave. If the handler gives you any trouble; call the state police barracks nearest your location. For illegal handlers with “imposter” or “non-task trained” dogs; beware – Uncle Sam, the entire service dog community, and myself are onto you, and we’re cracking down.

***Note: This article is not about, nor designed to discriminate against, any program and/or owner-trained, physical or psychiatric service dogs that have been well trained to fully meet federal requirements; and handlers who have learned and fully versed themselves in federal, state and local law. This is an alert about the vastly growing problem of people who are illegally, and often intentionally, passing off their pet dogs without learning about governing laws, or providing any specialized training and task work for their dogs as required by law).

About the author:

Kimberly Carnevale is an author, disability advocate, and motivational speaker. She is the President and founder of Canine and Abled, Inc. (the award-winning program featured on TV, magazines and in her first book). She is invited to speak nationally on service dog law, business service dog education (including policy and procedure revision/implementation), and corporate motivation.

Kimberly presents her award winning educational and character-building assembly to schools, scout troops and other youth organizations throughout the country, and has been published numerous times nationally and internationally as an expert in her field.

Ms. Carnevale is available to advocate for the rights of service dog handlers (who fully meet the requirements of “disabled” and “service dog” as per the ADA), and to businesses who need employee sensitivity, service dog, and/or disability training, or feel they have encountered “imposter” service dogs in their establishment.

Kimberly also consults in service dog training/acquisition, helps assist people with disabilities train their dogs to the title of service dog, and has plans to build a breeding/training/provision center in the near future. She can be contacted through her website: http://www.canineandabled.com/  

Lash Blog Permission

23 responses to ““Imposter” Service Dogs”

  1. Gaeyle says:

    Good overview except for one thing- it should not and does not cost $15,000-$25,000 to train a service dog. Many awesome service dog teams are self-trained, often with assistance from available general obedience trainers and classes. And the community of self-training service dog handlers is very supportive and helpful. Fakers just make it harder for those with disabilities who have a service dog. All businesses should have a copy of the ADA booklet for business available.

  2. Dear Earline,
    It’s always so nice to hear from you. A service dog could help Daniel in so many ways, not only as a companion but to help with physical tasks such as opening doors, picking up things, etc. There are many organizations so I would start by searching the website using search words service dogs and north carolina.
    Grace Peay has a brain injury and writes about how she received a service dog on her blog on our website at http://www.lapublishing.com/blog/2009/canine-companion-brain-injury/

    Although the cost for a service dog is substantial, there are organizations that provide subsidies to reduce the cost.

    With so many veterans using service dogs to help with TBI and PTSD, more organizations are supporting this programs.
    Marilyn Lash

  3. Earline Surratt says:

    Hi….would like some feed back for a service dog for my son Daniel Surratt… he is a TBI and wheelchair bound. Would like to have a companion dog for him ….to have one as a friend….and to sit with him, and so much more…Let me know what you can do to help me find one….Thank you…Earline Surratt and Daniel

  4. Tim. R says:

    Never knew this sort of thing was happening, terrible.

  5. Matt says:

    In similiar vein to other posters,it would be great, much more believable, and not seem like personal opion, IF, the writer had cited her sources which the reader could then verify.

  6. Seth says:

    Ms. Carnevale, I’d like to know exactly what these “stiff federal penalties” are you allude to. I have not been able to identify any federal law that imposes either jail time or fines on people who falsely claim their dog is a service animal.

    If you can cite the relevant statutes, I’d appreciate it.

  7. Thank you, I’ve recently been searching for info about this topic for ages and yours is the best I’ve discovered so far. But, what about the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?

  8. Justin says:

    I am planning to have my 3 year old golden retriever become my service dog. I do have not and don’t plan to spend the 15,000 dollars that some say is required. The amount of training that should be done should be based on the services that the dog is performing. As long as the dog can behave well in public then there should not be an issue. There always will be the scoflaw types out there but if it get to a point where we can’t be left to make sound judgments and were all put in the same box then it will make life more frustrating than it already is.

  9. Gino Elke says:

    Great blog! A pleasure to read.

  10. Canine training is exciting and may be very tough with some dogs, but with a little patience and lots of tender love, your dog will be healthy and extremely happy. These are helpful points written by the author that all dog lovers should review – thanks.

  11. Barbs Fortin says:

    I see alot of imposter service dogs! Usually they are cute little small dogs that yap and are out of control in restraunts etc. in a purse pouch. I really feel a need to do something and although I have been asked to provide info by a restraunt but don’t know how. If there is no cert or registration, how can you tell ask them?

  12. Well written article, good researched and useful for me in the future.I am so happy you took the time and effort to make this. Best of luck

  13. Byron Hick says:

    Great info! Well written and very informative. Thanks

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  20. Dear Lori,
    I am so sorry to hear your situation. I do not know your insurance coverage so I can not answer your question about Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage. I suggest that you inquire if you are eligible for Medicaid as it sounds like your income and savings are low. This may help with your medical bills. You may also be able to apply for disability benefits if you contact the Social Security Office.
    Marilyn Lash

  21. Lori Dodge says:

    I was in a really bad boat accent in the early eights.It only took the doctors 32 years to finally diagnose me.Plus on top of that I just found out .I have TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY. On top of all that I also have lupus sle..With so many other autoimmune disease.And the seizures have been so bad with the severe headaches.I am 5’8 and i’m down to 97 pounds.My husband has been laid off for over a year and a half.I WON’T HAVE ANYONE TO HELP ME OUT,SOME TIMES THE PAIN IS SO SEVERE I JUST WISH GOD WOULD TAKE ME HOME.PLUS ON TOP OF THAT I MAY LOOSE MY HOUSE.PLEASE IF YOU CAN SEND ME A ANGEL I WOULD SO MUCH BE GRATEFUL.DO YOU KNOW IF BLUE CROSS WOULD PICK SOME OF THE COST?THANK YOU FOR TAKEN THE TIME TO READ MY LETTER.LORI DODGE 586-228-5869

  22. Ms. Carnevale is available to advocate for the rights of service dog handlers (who fully meet the requirements of “disabled” and “service dog” as per the ADA), and to businesses who need employee sensitivity, service dog, and/or disability training, or feel they have encountered “imposter” service dogs in their establishment.

    She can be contacted through her website: http://www.CanineAndAbled.com

  23. Rebecca says:

    What do you do if you know somebody is trying to pass a dog off as a service dog? I called ADA and they blew me off. I do not know what to do. Our family has dogs, and trains them for obedience and agility. Our one dog has 4 years under he belt (collar) and the other two dogs are about 2 years…. We know what’s involved in just basic obedience is and this dog does not qualify even for basic… My daughter is beyond upset, last week this mother told the dog and child to school and told the school it was a service dog and was staying with the child from this point on. The teacher complained because the dog smelled, scratched it self all day long, cried and barked with the child put it in the crate when she went to lunch and recess… and pulled/drug the child in the hallway on the leash. (Child was using a gentle leader…) The mother claims the dog bumps the child when the child is having an emotional breakdown. (The child may or may not even have a disability)

    This person has the school so upset, I am sure if a person with a valid reason and a trained service dog the school is going put up flags. This school is wonderful, I have a child in this school system that is disabiled, and the school goes above and beyond. Added to the fact that my daugter phys has offered to process paperwork to the school for my daughter to obtain and use a service dog and the school told me it would be no problem, and I trust them. I know it requires time to train staff aand for the dog to adjust, you do not just drop the kid and dog off for 8+ hours the first days..

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