Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Impostor Service Dogs; What’s the Harm?


“I love my dog and I want to take it everywhere with me. I see dogs with vests that are allowed to go with their owners. Why can’t I just buy a vest and take my dog too?”

A Service Dog is so much more than just a dog in a vest. A true Service Dog has been carefully selected for its health and temperament. It’s been rigorously socialized to handle strange new places and obstacles without hesitation. It’s reactions to it’s surroundings have been monitored while the dog is in training, and if, for any reason, the dog shows signs of stress or fear, that dog is usually cut from the program. Although it sounds a little harsh, this is done for the handler’s safety and the dog’s comfort in times of stress. All of this happens before the task-training even begins.

Each Service Dog is trained to do specific tasks for the handler. Some are trained to work in harness for the blind, while others aid people in wheelchairs. There are Service Dogs who help people with mobility issues, dogs for those who suffer with Parkinson’s disease, and dogs that are trained to alert their hearing impaired owners. Medical Alert dogs are trained to sense when their handler is having blood sugar problems, or can even alert their handler to an impending seizure, thus giving their person time to get to a safe place and keeping them safe during the seizure.

Service Dogs are trained to ignore who or what is around them and strictly focus on the needs of their handler. They are not distracted by the sights and sounds around them, or even by other dogs. We say a Service Dog needs to be “bomb proof”. They are trained to be calm and quiet in public settings and tuck out of the way of the general public. In effect, a true Service Dog is a canine professional that has the equivalent of a PhD in it’s training.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) governs the rules of access for a service dog. It has written the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and grants certain access rights for persons with disabilities to be accompanied by their fully trained Service Dogs. It has taken many years and much frustration on the part of the disabled community to be granted these rights, and still they will be questioned about their rights on a nearly daily basis. As more and more able-bodied people try to pass their pet dogs as Service Dogs for their convenience, it becomes harder for those who truly depend on their dogs to go about their daily activities.

Perhaps the most sensitive issue about impostor dogs is the cruel and insulting light it puts on those who must put their lives in the harness of their Service Dogs for their day-to-day living. “Vesting” a pet and trying to pass it as a Service Dog belittles the disabled handler and trivializes their disability. Pretending that you are disabled when you are not is immoral. Pet dogs do not have the skills, the ability or the temperament needed to be a Service Dog. Trying to pass a pet dog as a Service Dog just to be able to take it everywhere with you is dangerous for the dog and the people around the impostor dog. It is illegal. The DOJ has laws against impostor dogs, and many states have enacted even more stringent laws on top of the federal laws. Each time someone is tempted to vest their pet and take it along, they should think long and hard about the very real consequences of breaking these rules.

So you ask, “What’s the harm in pretending my dog is a service dog so I can take it along?”
The harm is very real for you, your dog, the general public and the disabled community.

By Shirley Minatelli, Service Dog Handler

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