Pet or Service Dog, That is the Question

Table of Contents

By Colt Rosensweig

Every week, it seems, a news channel will run a segment on so-called “fake service dogs”—otherwise known as, well, pets. These segments tend to turn into a tutorial on how to abuse the service dog system in the United States. And they provoke a knee-jerk reaction from many members of the public.

“There should be certification of these dogs!”

“We need tighter regulations on service dogs!”

“Why don’t handlers carry around ID cards that prove their dog is a service dog?”

“Real service dogs only come from programs; if we just eliminate owner-training, no one will be able to pass their pet off as a service dog!”

While these proposed solutions may sound good on their face, they are actually quite problematic. They are also directly opposed to the regulations and intentions put forward in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Law: What defines a service dog

The rights of people with disabilities are specially protected by both federal (the Americans with Disabilities Act) and state laws. For the purposes of this article, I will primarily focus on federal law, as it relates to service dogs.

The ADA states that “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” This law is intentionally designed to provide the broadest possible protection for disabled people. It is important to note that the ADA does not require:

  1. A service dog to be trained by a program. Service dogs can be trained by anyone, including the disabled handler him or herself.
  2. A service dog to be a particular size or breed. Many service dog tasks don’t necessitate a large dog—small dogs can perform signal alert or seizure response tasks, for example, just as well or better than a large dog. Breed specific legislation does not apply to service dogs. A dog of any breed or mix who has the ability and aptitude for the work can be a service dog.
  3. Specific types of collars to be used on a service dog. Service dogs may work in whatever equipment a handler deems optimal, be that a flat buckle collar, check chain, prong collar, head collar, or any other piece of equipment.
  4. A service dog to wear any identifying vest, harness, or other markers. Some dogs wear harnesses as part of their job (such as a guide dog), and many wear vests as a courtesy to the general public and/or to signal the dog when it is work time. This is entirely up to the handler.

The ADA also specifically notes that emotional support and companionship are not considered tasks. These are happy bonuses of having a service dog, but if these are all that the dog provides, that means the dog is a pet. No person, disabled or otherwise, has the right under federal law to bring a pet into no-pet areas.

The Law: The rights of businesses

In addition to being trained to mitigate their handler’s disability, a service dog also must be trained to behave professionally in public. The dog must also be leashed or tethered in some way unless that interferes with the dog’s ability to do a task. There is no written code of conduct or etiquette for service dogs, largely because each service dog’s job can vary so much from another’s. However, there are several behaviors that no service dog should ever engage in while working in public.

A business has the legal right (and, many handlers would say, the obligation) to have a dog removed from the premises if:

  1. The dog is out of control and the handler takes no steps to control it.
  2. The dog is not housebroken.
  3. The dog poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

It is important to note that all of these are behavioral requirements. These apply to all dogs. This means that regardless of who did the dog’s training, where it came from, whether the handler is obviously disabled, what kind of vest it is wearing, and so on, a dog who behaves in such a manner can and should be removed from the business.

Why is this so important? Because while training certifications, special patches, I.D. cards, and other such items of gear can be obtained by almost anyone, behavior cannot be faked. A pet will nearly always give itself away as such by behaving in ways no service dog would ever be permitted to do.

Businesses are also allowed to ask the handler two questions, if it’s not obvious what the service dog’s job is. Businesses can ask 1) if the dog is a service dog, and 2) what the dog is trained to do. This does not mean the business may pry into the details of the handler’s disability. Many handlers will be intentionally vague when asked the second question, especially if they have a psychiatric disability, since such disabilities often carry an unfortunate amount of social stigma. Once these questions have been answered appropriately, the business must allow the handler and dog access unless the dog misbehaves in one of the ways described above.

Unwritten Rules: Common service dog etiquette

The “rules” I’m about to list are not a point of universal agreement among handlers. And there are always exceptions to these rules, especially when a dog is engaged in a task.

Generally, a service dog should be focused on his handler and his job. He shouldn’t be sniffing merchandise excessively, or soliciting attention from strangers. He should ignore food as well as people trying to attract his attention.

Service dogs should keep “four on the floor,” unless it is unsafe for them to do so, or they need to do a task. For example, while it may be safe most of the time for a very small service dog to walk at heel like a large dog, in a thick crowd it is safer for the handler to carry or sling the dog. A service dog should stay under the table while in a restaurant, but if her handler starts to have a panic attack, it is perfectly acceptable for her to get up and perform deep pressure therapy while across her handler’s lap. Service dogs should not be sitting on restaurant chairs or booths, or riding in shopping carts.

Service dogs should not pull their handlers willy-nilly while on leash; even while pulling in harness, the dog should be well-controlled. This doesn’t mean that all service dogs must walk in a perfect heel. But generally, a service dog should move easily with the handler without pulling. Much of the time, a dog yanking its owner around is a pet. However, some service dogs have been taught to take charge in situations where their handler is unable to do so. If a handler becomes overwhelmed, the dog may have been taught to take her to a safe place or a specific person. This can sometimes look like the dog is pulling. It’s usually not too hard to tell the difference between a focused service dog taking her handler somewhere as a task, and a pet dog dragging his owner to whatever has captured his attention.

When encountering other dogs in public, service dogs should ignore them or be easily redirected away from them. Service dogs should not fixate on other dogs, or lunge, bark, or growl. Aggression is never acceptable in a service dog. It should be noted, though, that service dogs in training may have dog reactivity issues they are working on. A responsible handler will deal with the situation, either by refocusing the dog or moving him further away from whatever is causing the behavior. People with pets will often make excuses for or completely ignore behavior that is unacceptable in a working dog.

Every dog, including service dogs, will have bad days. No dog is perfectly behaved 100% of the time. And every handler either has had or will have that horrible day when they don’t know their service dog’s stomach is upset and they have a potty accident in a store. A good indicator of whether the dog is a working dog or a pet whose owner has dressed it up is how the handler responds to lapses in behavior. A service dog handler will address lapses in behavior immediately, while a person who has vested their pet will usually ignore or try to rationalize bad behavior.

Service dog handlers often tend to be their dogs’ harshest critics. The day when you are dying inside because your service dog has sniffed seven different things in the grocery store and won’t position himself precisely and has made googly eyes at five different strangers is invariably the day when every person you meet seems to be telling you how perfect your dog is.

Abuse: How it affects service dog teams

When pet owners abuse the system by taking their dressed-up pets into public, it directly hurts real service dog teams. If the pet misbehaves, the business owner will be far more likely to distrust the next team they encounter. If the pet owner shows a business a scam ID from the internet to gain access, when a legitimate team refuses to produce such an ID, they may be discriminated against and denied access. The same goes for pet owners showing “papers,” which also come from scam sites online.

Having to re-educate business owners can be extremely difficult for disabled handlers. Some people have anxiety disorders that make it nearly impossible to deal with such conflict. Many have a very limited amount of energy to expend each day, and having to educate a business can make it difficult or impossible to complete the rest of what that person hoped to accomplish that day.

And if disabled handlers are completely denied access, then we have to spend our limited resources and energy filing a complaint with the Department of Justice. This will also be bad for the business, as they can be fined for denying access to a service dog team.

Abuse: How it affects the pet

Something that pet owners who dress up their dogs clearly don’t consider is how their actions negatively affect their pet. The reason it takes so long (18-24 months) to train a service dog is that their job is extremely demanding and stressful. Even programs that breed their own service dog prospects have high wash-out or career-change rates. So it should come as no surprise that the average pet dog is ill-equipped to deal with the stress of being in no-pet public areas.

Service dogs are specially trained to deal with things like children racing up to them and invading their space, adults randomly reaching for their heads, shopping carts rattling by inches from their face, and crowds pressing in on them from every direction. These things can stress pet dogs out beyond their thresh hold.

Some pet dogs will shut down in the face of such stress—this is very unpleasant for the dog. But some dogs will be so stressed out that they lash out. This is not only unpleasant for the dog, but dangerous to the dog, owner, and members of the public. A dog who bites a child because she’s been pushed beyond what she can handle not only hurts any service dog team following them. That child will likely be hurt, and possibly be traumatized. And the dog may end up being killed because of that bite. These are serious consequences, and if pet owners actually considered them and cared more about their dogs than themselves, they would not dress their dogs in vests and drag them into public.

Possible solutions

While many people believe that increased limitations and regulations on service dogs and disabled people will solve the problem of pets in public, it is important to realize that we already have laws in place to stop this.

Business owners need further education, clearly, on what their own rights are. Many business owners are afraid to confront people with pets in vests because such people will often go straight to the media and complain about discrimination. Often they will also try internet campaigns to ruin the business.

For example, a man last year insisted to employees at a Bonefish Grill that he had the right to have his dog sit on the booth beside him during his meal. When the employees told him his dog needed to be on the floor—where service dogs belong, when not actively engaged in a task—he blew up. Unfortunately, this man had a huge internet following which flooded Bonefish’s Facebook page with negative comments and reviews.

That particular story ended well for the business. Service dog teams responded to the man’s followers by posting multitudes of photos of their service dogs behaving properly at restaurants—lying quietly under the table. Handlers posted messages of support and even made a point of patronizing a Bonefish franchise near them. But the story shows how even when a person behaves poorly with their dog, they can still try, and sometimes succeed, at smearing the business owner who only stood up for his or her rights.

When business owners stand up for their rights, furthermore, it protects service dog teams. The absolute last thing that we as handlers want to encounter in a no-pets business is a pet who has no business being there. Countless numbers of service dogs, owner-trained and program-trained, have had to be expensively rehabbed or even retired because they were attacked by pets dressed as service dogs.

Behavior is the only unfakeable and completely reliable way to evaluate a dog on a given day. Adding extra hoops for disabled people to jump through, or treating us like second-class citizens by forcing us to show proof of our disability anytime we want to go out in public, does nothing to prevent unscrupulous people from finding ways to bring their pets into public. Certifications and ID cards can be faked. Impeccable behavior can’t be purchased for $50 from an internet scam site. It can’t be obtained in a day. It takes an incredible amount of time and dedication. People who want to “take Fluffykins with me everywhere!” are not the kind of people who will put in two years of training to make sure Fluffykins can handle it.

In addition to educating businesses on their rights and getting those rights enforced, another part of the solution is increasing the punishment for both people who dress their pets as service dogs and the companies that sell useless, problematic certifications and ID cards. It is against the law already to falsely represent oneself as disabled, or one’s pet as a service dog. But in most states it is a misdemeanor, and punished so infrequently that these people feel no qualms about openly admitting their lawbreaking to news stations, publications, or even service dog handlers.

Falsely representing a pet as a service dog should be a felony, with meaningful punishments. And selling scam IDs and certifications should be plain illegal. The new FAQ published this summer specifically states that “there are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.” It’s important for owner trainers to be able to buy their gear online—most of us don’t have the talent with sewing and/or leather working to be able to create our gear on our own—but there is no reason anyone needs papers or ID cards.

There are ways to combat people who bring pets inappropriately into public without punishing disabled handlers in the process. Adding further regulations, extra hoops and obstacles, just makes it harder for disabled handlers to get and train the dogs they so desperately need. Unethical people would still find ways to fake the ID cards or certification papers, if they were implemented, while ethical disabled people would simply be without service dogs—especially if they wish to owner-train.

Behavior in public is what matters. Any dog who behaves inappropriately in public, without being brought under control by the handler, needs to be removed. This is already part of the law. We just have to enforce it!

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