A Very Real Scandal

There’s a real “Scandal” out there but it’s not ABC’s Thursday night political TV thriller starring Kerry Washington (but can I just say, huge fan?!). Nope, the real scandal that no one is talking about is the proliferation of faux service dogs.image

While I’d love to be able to take Sam with me everywhere I go, in good conscience I just can’t do that under false pretenses. Oh sure, I’ve thought about it. I mean, after all, who’d be hurt by a sweet goofy, Standard Poodle wearing a vest whenever I go out? It would only take a matter of visiting any number of web sites (my Google search for service dog vests for sale showed over 56 million hits with some priced as low as $37!). Just pay the fee and viola, I’d be the proud owner of a ‘service dog’ that could go anywhere and according to the American with Disabilities Act, not be denied legal access. But we all know that Sam, sweet as he may be, is no service dog by any stretch of the imagination and even though he provides comfort and emotional support he simply does not qualify as a service animal under the definition in the ADA but the people who’d be hurt most would be the disabled themselves and I can’t do that.

So why is that a problem? People with real disabilities are increasingly being denied access. Recently a couple of stories of veterans who were asked to leave restaurants surfaced setting the ‘Net ablaze in the disabled community. See: Subway restaurant and Minnesota incident for details. Stories like these are beginning to highlight the tip of this scandal iceberg. Estimates suggest there are probably around 20,000 or so legitimate service dog teams yet hundreds of thousands of vests, certificates and IDs are sold every year and the kicker here is…it’s all perfectly legal to buy and possess them.

When I travelled to Hawaii last year, a woman with a very small fluff of a dog was trying desperately to get a ticket agent to allow her to bring her dog on board. When she finally screeched that the dog was her ‘companion’ dog and she absolutely had to have it with her, the agent relented probably because of the kerfuffle being created (and the fact that the dog would easily fit under the seat I suspect). While it seemed like a sweet (albeit nervous) little dog, that dog was no more a service dog than I am.

Service dogs are NOT pets. They are however important working resources for the disabled that allow them to deal with a semi-normal day-to-day life and as such they are a necessity, not just a ‘gee I’d love to take my dog with me everywhere just because’ thing. The ADA’s policies relating to service dogs are enforced through the states but only 16 states have specific laws regarding the consequences of misrepresentation of service dogs or identifying oneself as disabled so enforcement is often hit or miss under the guidelines. Sadly, there’s nothing to prevent anyone from strapping a vest on their pooch and walking through their local mall posing as a service dog team. The ambiguity with a lack of central governance and certification seems to have created loopholes in the system and fixing it is not going to be easy. The backlash associated with challenging a disabled person is nothing most large businesses want any part of and it could be difficult to know the difference between the real deal and a fake based merely upon appearance. One aspect that especially contributes to this ongoing fraud, is that it is illegal to ask about a person’s disability, require seeing medical documentation, identification card or training documentation for that matter. And that’s kind of the heart of this problem. It’s obvious that relying on an honor system (both in people offering to sell these vests and those who buy them) isn’t working to resolve this scandal or make it easier for those who really need these amazing creatures to make their lives more positive.

These fake service dog teams are creating additional and unnecessary discrimination toward the disabled who already suffer institutionalized discrimination due to the mere fact they are disabled. As the stories reported earlier mentioned, some find it can be a constant and uphill battle just to survive in an increasingly difficult-to-fit-in society when you’re disabled. We all profess to ‘support our troops’ but sometimes when the rubber actually hits the road, it’s a whole different story. In the meantime, more and more self-absorbed people continue to order service vests so they can take their dogs to the movies or restaurants with them…because they just “want” to have their dogs with them all the time-not because they really need them as a service dog.

What do you think about faux service dogs? Have you seen this scandal in action?

Live, love, bark! <3

P.S. Since publication of this post, I have found a report that really explains it all in detail. It can be downloaded here.

21 thoughts on “A Very Real Scandal

  1. I’ve heard of this. You do know there is a website where you can order the ‘service dog’ paperwork? http://registerservicedogs.com/

    Yeah, these people suck. Would I love to have my dogs with me everywhere I go? Of course I would, but you would definitely be able to tell the difference between my dogs and a dog that has been trained to assist a person with a disability, even an emotional one.

    1. Jodi, there are dozens of them, all making money off the self-absorbed who are jeopardizing legitimate disabled service teams. I mean, who fakes being disabled?! You gotta be some kind of tool to do that!

  2. Very interesting, thanks so much for bringing attention to this issue. Reminds me of people pretending to be handicapped to get to the front of the line at Disney Land!

  3. There are lots of good reasons I like my dog better than most people and this discussion just validates my curmudgeonly attitude.

    To start, labeling a non-service animal as a service animal is a form of stolen valor. I just don’t have much time for weasels and glib excuses and justifications.

    Having made that harsh statement I will freely admit that I cannot make the distinctions among folks who say they need a pet as an emotional support; a four legged binky or comfort blankie. I’m not wired to make that type of assessment even while it pisses me off when I learn of someone obviously scamming the system.

    If someone says he/she needs a comfort animal I’ll go along with them, the judgment of others is way above my pay grade.

    But then again, I have no problem with animals accompanying us in most situations and places, unlike others who have the fainting horrors if a dog – a beast! – were to brush their leg at a restaurant.

    So basically I have no answers except people should get their crap together and straighten up and fly right and hew to the rules and respect others and…and…and…let me know when I can stop preaching…be nice.

    Can I get an Amen?

  4. I saw a lot of companion dogs on my recent trip to California while shopping and in restaurants. It must be a big problem there because I even saw a sign at a tourist venue that politely stated “No Pets. Service dogs trained to assist handlers with disabilities, as outlined in ADA law, are always welcome.” But as you pointed out, whoever tries to police it is an instant bad guy. Sadly, I don’t see this issue going away anytime soon – let’s hope more businesses start using signs like these to compel people to think about how this trend affects people with disabilities who actually require trained service animals.

    Thank you for this post – awareness is the first step!

    1. I’d venture to guess at least 95% of those ‘companion’ dogs were simply pets and not actual service dogs. It’s gotten crazy and the truly disabled are being penalized because of fakers. 🙁

  5. I so agree with you. I see countless instances of dogs labelled as “service” for emotional problems. I have a friend who is guilty of this and she will be the first one to tell you it’s because she wants the dog with her all the time. In California it’s really easy to find a compliant therapist who will sign the necessary papers. In fact, the whole thing can be done on line. For a fee – what a surprise.

  6. I agree with you – it’s such a shame that some folks are going to ruin an essential service that folks with real disabilities require. There is need for a centralized agency – not that I want more bureaucracy, but it’s unfair to those that really need it.

  7. Honestly, I cannot say that I’ve seen actual evidence of this scandal. I know it exists out there because I occasionally get junk emails offering me “great deals” on (fake) service dog vests, ID cards, etcetera, that I just delete permanently. I think people who take advantage of these deals just so they can have their pet dog with them everywhere they go are selfish, self-centered, and any other similar adjective. Like you, I would love to be able to take my dogs with me everywhere I go; but I am not about to strap a fake vest on any of them and pretend I’m disabled. It’s just not right. Unfortunately, until all 50 states pass laws to prevent the sale of fake “proof” and actually enforce those laws, this problem will only continue to get worse.

    1. A fair number of airport travelers bring their dogs on board now so as to avoid cargo hold fares with the notion they are therapy companions. It’s a load of tosh and when they misbehave it puts actual service dog teams under unnecessary scrutiny, but you’re right until there are 50 states regulating this issue, it’ll only continue to be abused while the unprincipled will carry on and reap monetary benefit.

  8. Hi Monika, I so agree with you that this is a problem. Shouldn’t it be easy to monitor? When I certified Wrigley as a therapy dog we also got a “badge” that had our pictures on it and info on our organization. I’m sure Service Dogs have something similar. I think an education campaign for business owners on what to ask for would be helpful! But, as always, it’s a financial issue with lack of budgets for such a thing! I had an incident at the grocery store. A lady had a small toy breed type in her grocery cart and was shopping. No vest. She was petting the pup, fed him cheese at the cheese counter from the free samples, then went over and was picking through the apples. I was pretty sure this was not appropriate service dog owner behavior when the store manager approached and questioned. Of course I was curious so I examined the lemons and limes while I listened in 🙂 first she said companion dog, when he asked where the vest was she said she left it at home, then she started to get outraged and said he was a medical service dog. The manager asked for any id to show he was a service dog and she got louder. He didn’t ask her to leave, but he did make sure she knew in the future she had to have the vest and id. With food safety issues I assume groceries have to be much more up on what’s allowable and what’s not. I doubt highly, based on the owners behavior, that this was any type of service dog. I think the store handled well, but It seemed they were knowledgeable on what to look for 🙂

    1. The ADA is so nebulous; dogs are not required to wear vests, collars or bandanas nor are their handlers required to obtain licenses, ID cards or official certification, Therein, lies the problem. While I support educational awareness of businesses, they tend to avoid this subject like the plague. No one wants to get the bad press that Subway or the other restaurant did and enforcement falls directly onto the states with a majority having no legislation regarding enforcement. A central registry with centralized training protocol could be a way to solve these faux therapy teams but providing resources for all disabled people might hamper the effort if excessive costs or rights infringement are at risk and so the problem continues and puts real service dogs at risk of being lumped with faux teams. It’s a real Catch-22. Many of the sites I looked up offer ID badges, certifications, vests and even fake prescriptions indicating a therapy dog is necessary, all for a fee. It’s a tragic situation. Like you and Wrigley, Sam and I had to go through loads of hoop jumping, obtained ID badges for both of us as well as training, the group we served was responsible and acted within the scope of the ADA. Too bad others can’t/won’t follow that same protocol. Sigh.

  9. So troubling. People just don’t GET it. They love their pets so much, they can’t bear to be without them. Seriously, it’s really committing a crime against those in need. I’m glad you wrote this and wish it could be picked up for national coverage. People need to think in terms of compassionate responsibility.

  10. I have to admit, that the idea has something… it could solve some problems. But on the other side, it has a bitter taste… I mean we all should be happy that we don’t need a service dog to manage our life and with fake service dogs w such misconceptions and restrictions are caused, what the owner of real service dogs have to bear…
    I haven’t seen such a case, but I once tried to take Easy with me to IKEA disguised as a “baby” in a jogger. Sadly they smelled the rat (no baby makes such wild noises)and after 87 hours of palaver, they offered to shop for me, while I could wait with a free coffee and a chocolate cake at the checkout point with the pup. The only one who was happy, was Easy’s dad, so he only had to pay for the things we had on our shopping list and not for all the trashures I always find additional everywhere :o)

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