A growing number of dog owners are trying to pass their untrained companions off as service animals — and they’re actually getting away with it. Many owners who want to take their dogs into movie theaters, restaurants, or on public transit see it as a quick solution, but people with disabilities are starting to complain that the number of “imposters” is making it hard for people with legitimate service animals to be taken seriously.
It turns out it’s not hard to do — there is no national regulation for licensing service animals. Owners do not have any kind of special ID for their pets, and they are allowed to purchase service dog harnesses and vests without providing proof that their dog has been trained to meet any particular special needs. Unfortunately, there is no law against selling knock-off service dog gear.
Lauren Henderson, a California actor with mobility problems, told NPR in a recent interview that she’s seeing untrained “service dogs” more and more often. Because service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners, like guiding the blind, pulling wheelchairs, or even assisting in treatment for illness, they don’t behave like a pet would. They don’t sit on their owner’s laps, growl at strangers or stop to mark their territory. Henderson worries these poorly-behaved dogs will reflect badly on people with legitimate needs and cause business owners to discriminate against her.
She’s right to worry. People often don’t know how to tell the difference between a licensed service dog and a fake, so service dog handlers risk being harassed at airports, denied service at restaurants and even having their helpers barred from classrooms when a manager takes one look at the animal and decides it’s not really necessary.
In the past few months alone, there are have been headlines nationwide about people with disabilities being unlawfully denied their service dogs — from Iraq and Vietnam war veterans with combat-related issues, to a diabetic middle schooler whose dog was barred from monitoring her blood sugar levels in the classroom.
Unfortunately, the people who try to pass off their pets as service dogs are rarely aware of the impact it has on legitimate service animal owners. They see it as a way to avoid leaving their dogs tied up outside and to spend more quality time together — or as a way to pick up dates, as one owner admitted in a recent New York Post article.
So what’s the solution? Confronting people you suspect may be faking a disability will only make the problem worse — especially if you turn out to be wrong. Instead, we need to start lobbying state governments to better regulate the licensing of service animals. Making it a crime to sell fake service dog gear would also go a long way toward solving the problem.
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