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Fake Service Dogs?: A Call to Action

In a recent article in The Federal Way Mirror, published in the Puget Sound area of Washington, editor Andy Hobbs focused on the issue of people who place vests on their dogs and call them “Service Dogs”. A friend of mine who lives near Puget Sound was kind enough to send me this link and I was dismayed to read (again) that there are people taking advantage of a federal designation unscrupulously. Equally dismaying is the disservice it does for those who truly need a dog to help them. The article states:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 grants specific rights and prohibits discrimination related to service dogs. There are no requirements for licensing, certification or identification of service dogs, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The animals are not required to wear special collars, vests or harnesses. The ADA makes it unlawful to require proof of a disability or identification for the service dog. When dealing with so-called service animals, businesses are only allowed to ask two questions of dog owners:

  • Is the dog required because of a disability?
  • What task or service has the dog been trained to do?

This points out the strong need for clarity concerning the issues of terminology and definitions for those people who work with animals, whether as the professional delivering a service or as this article highlights, as the recipient of the service/s of an animal.

Today, we have a plethora of words we use to describe animals that serve us. For example, a dog who helps a person with a disability may be called a service dog, a psych dog or a therapy dog. Because there are a number of possible “disabilities” a human may have, there are dogs who are specifically trained to help with those disabilities.

The ADA referred to above was created in 1990 when many of what we now describe as psychiatric disabilities were largely not recognized. For example, it was not until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association added the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which was originally coined in the mid-1970s, to the third edition of the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Today however, there is a national movement to match veterans diagnosed with PTSD with dogs whose main purpose is to help in calming and re-focusing the person, allowing them a better quality of life.

But what do we call this particular type of dog? Is it a therapy dog because it is performing a therapeutic task? Is it a psych(iatric) dog because it is of emotional benefit to the person it works with? Or is it a service dog because it serves the person it lives with and allows that person to live a less stressful life?

Another concern involves training for the practitioners and for the animals, often dogs. An example would be that of a dog trainer matching a specifically trained dog to a person. If the dog trainer has no formal education in psychology or counseling or knowledge of how a physical or psychological disability affects a person, should s/he be allowed to make that decision, solely based on their knowledge, albeit extensive, about canine ability and temperament? Along the same lines, does it make sense for a dog who has been trained for two years to perform a myriad of complex tasks be paired with a person who is physically able but who has a diagnosis of moderate to severe PTSD?

And what about people who use animals in their counseling work? Should someone who again may have extensive training as a therapist but with no formal or even minimal training in animal psychology be crossing their line of education and mixing it with a different one?

I believe that multi-disciplinary practices are definitely possible and certainly beneficial. Although we live in a world of specialization, this does not negate the possibility of blending two (or more) seemingly separate practices.

However, in order to do this, we need to create some guidelines. We need to agree on words, definitions and terminology that can and do cross the boundaries – ones that make sense and that we can all agree on. We need to define the scope of training for those people who work with animals in a service capacity and who mix disciplines.

This will entail some serious brainstorming and probably some disagreements. So, here is where the call to action comes in: I propose that practitioners who would like to be a part of this process join HABRI Central and prepare for some lengthy discussions!

We will need people with vision and creative thinking and folks who are not afraid to ultimately approach the Department of Justice. Once we can come up with a proposed set of guidelines, it is likely that the ADA wording will have to be changed.

Every action taken for the purpose of betterment has a process attached to it. However, without the action, there can be no change of any kind. Let us begin this process with positive intentions to create a new, clearer, more well-defined and all-encompassing set of terminology and guidelines for people and animals who work together to help one another.

Comments on this entry

  1. Charles Watkinson

    Thank you for this thought-provoking entry, Deborah. What are your thoughts about the role of certification from Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International in distinguishing the professionals from others?

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    1. Deborah Dobson

      I am absolutely in favor of training, certification, etc. – anything we humans can do to be of greater service is beneficial.

      My hope is to see some consensus across the board on terminology and definitions. It seems that many good people are providing similar animal assisted services here in the US. I believe it’s time to sit down and brainstorm what we do and how to define it.

      That said, I invite you to participate further in this discussion and to invite any interested colleagues as well.

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  2. Kelly Larkin

    Please allow me to start here amidst this vast and very confusing issue. First, there are already many Agencies, Organizations, Coalitions, Group, organization etc, already working towards trying to get their foot in the door of DOJ with respect to Service Dogs, and the laws concerning same. These efforts are primarily (if not exclusively) directed at ultimately profits of selling their programs and services of training, certifications, vests, patches to sew on, official looking identification tags, etc, etc. Particularly disgusting to me are those nonprofits who always have a ‘back door’ link to a Buy Button to a huge online presence where people can simply buy their dogs into a cerification and/or registration program.

    Next would be to mention that there are already SOOOO many groups, organizations, coalitions, etc, etc. who are trying to do something… anything… to clean this issue up. It is natural that only those organizations who carry ‘political weight’ and have a nationwide recognized name (such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, for example) will be able to actually have any input with the DOJ. In fact, you will find information in this same respect on this link:

    ADA REGS GO TO THE DOGS | American Council of the Blind

    Reading down the page, you will see a paragraph that reads as follows (I’ve cut & pasted it here):

    The Coalition of Assistance Dog Organzations (CADO), which includes representatives from Guide Dog Users, Inc., had been asked by DOJ to prepare a list of tasks and general public behavior standards for service animals. Much of this document was used to craft the proposed regulations.

    ADA wording HAS, in fact, already changed and there is already a Spring of 2011 revision. The problem with getting the new information out is that so many of the online site ultimately hoping to earn money from their efforts, quote the OLD ADA laws as their sites are up, running, making them money and there’s no reason to change something that might not be to their benefit.

    What should have been a great assistance (Service Dogs) has now become a real problem to those of us who actually NEED their assistance. What has me personally going so much is people who put “in training” vests on their dogs, most often puppies! The wording of the old and new ADA is very very clear and very specific: a dog MUST HAVE BEEN TRAINED. Absoluely no provisions or exception for “in training” are allowed. People wanting to take their pets with them everywhere they go are using this “in training” to basically bully business owners into acceptance and access; business owners do not want to risk the penalties for denying access.

    So where do we go with his subject at this point? I submit that a specific topic of concern be addressed by individual letterwriting campaigns to the person at the top of the food chain in this matter in Washington DC. A collective effort to right one wrong at a time may have more weight than imaginable. Next would be to secure the name & address to whom these letters should be sent and hen… let the campaign begin.

    (Just my opening thoughts, information & ideas =)

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  3. Kelly Larkin

    The ADA (old or new) specifically defines Dogs as being only 4 types:

    1. Service Dogs (who have been trained with several tasks specifically intended to mitigate the disabled persons difficulties); these dogs are the only ones allowed public access. Yes, a Psychiatric Service Dog can be considered a Service Dog but ONLY if it is HAS BEEN TRAINED to assist with the OWNER’S diagnosis, eg, with PTSD by waking its owner from recurring nightmares, medication reminders, interrupting and resolving panic attacks, etc. ~ those are tasks specifically designed to mitigate the disabled person’s difficulties. The problem here a I see it is there’s no definition of “disabled”… if the law said something similar to “a legally verifiable disability” it would be much more clear/specific.

    2. Therapy Dogs (trained to offer certain comforting aspects but not to the general public at large as they are intended for facilities with confined individuals are AND the facility must have a Therapy Dog in place as a part of their program. A Therapy Dog must also be insured and it is NOT granted the same public access as are Service Dogs. Additionally, Therapy Dogs can “visit” only… only… on invitation of the facility ~ not “at will” for the convenience of the owner. Also, AKC also even has a well accepted program in place for many years for Therapy Dog certificaion, pure bred or not)

    3. Companion dogs (defined specifically as those dogs who ‘provide comfort’ or such similar untrained or unspecific services to their owners purely for the comfort and convenience of the owner; these dogs have no right to access … other than dog friendly establishments, of course.) and

    4. Pets.

    The ADA strongly states these are the only 4 types of dogs definitions under its law. It also states that States and Counties or Cities of residence may create their own laws concerning Service Dogs too.

    Confusion only sets in (IMHO) when people want to simply take their dogs with them everywhere and look for any and all loopholes by which to do so. As I explained to Ms Dobsen via email, my personal biggest complaint is people utilizing an “in training” status as their biggest loophole. There is, bluntly, no such thing. The ADA clearly always has and does now clearly state a Service Dog ‘MUST HAVE BEEN TRAINED’ ~ that’s pretty simple and clear. Those utilizing this “in training” status most often are nothing more than users and bullies who take advantage of the business they are attempting to take their pet and especially their puppy into; the business owner does not want to risk the penalties of denying access so this dog’s owner especially ~ these are the worst of those using “Fake” service dogs, in my opinion. But be hopeful ~ The Airline industry (via the FAA) has this issue under control: not only will the owner & dog be severely scrutinized at the airport, but in some cases reservations can be denied if the Airline Agents do not feel the dog owner is legit! Yeah for the Airlines! =)

    And, BTW, there are some STIFF penalties already in place for Fake Service Dogs… including up to $10,000 fines, taking the dog from the owner, etc, etc.

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    1. Christopher C Charles

      Kelly, your breakdown of the current state of the ADA is very elucidating. I am curious to know what criteria the ADA uses to determine whether or not a service dog has been “trained.” Would a fly-by-night, mail-order, cash-up-front, no-questions-asked certification group pass the test or are things more structured than that?

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  4. Kelly Larkin

    Christoper ~ while I can not speak for DOJ or ADA, I can tell you that a literal reading of the Act and its supporting regs/laws address the issues you mention… by the very omission of their addressing these issues. Translation: there are NO specific and/or approved criteria utilized in determining whether or not a service dog has been trained. I so want to add the words “as yet” to that statement because the issue of “fake” service dogs is growing commeserate with the escalation of online companies attempting to sell products and/or their own specific certification programs.

    A recent telephone conversation of mine with a DOJ “specialist” concerning “fake” service dogs ~ especially those claiming “In Training” status and thus public access ~ revealed their generalized, overall current level of involvement or concern: I was told (in essence) to just take care of my own self, my disability and service dog and not worry about the ‘fakes’ out there {I’m sure you can imagine how I took THAT! lol} and that there is no ‘monitoring’ in place to circumvent the use of “fake” service dogs. Also, I was told there are no standards or tests by which a dog is adjudged trained or not, a fake or real service dog, etc. Again I tend to want to add the words “as yet” to these statements… for the obvious reason. =)

    So, to answer your question directly: yes, such a fly-by-night etc biz offering their own certification into THEIR program by your payment of their fees would work … for that company’s certification and probably pass any business’s concerns of the legitimacy of the dog… “as yet” =)

    And, THAT issue Christopher is where many of the “fake” service dogs are coming from (IMHO).

    Myself, because I sew and do prof embroidery, I made my own Service Dog vest. NO, I won’t make vests for anyone else as I’m not going to put myself in the position of either furthering the Fakes or certainly not in grading, judging or in any way verifying a person’s disability or the training or competency of their dog as a Service Dog. In the small town I live in, local business owners readily like to brag on personally knowing my “Jack” (Service Dog) and that they have personally witnessed him keep me from exposure to the fumes or chemicals which cause me severe life-threatening physical reactions. Fortunately for me, the standards by which Jack performs his duties have quietly become the standards by which local businesses expect (or demand) that other Service Dogs perform.

    But even Jack and I have been questioned concerning his Service Dog status/legitimacy as he is also a big, beautiful, in tact and ‘genetic gold’ show dog too. I’ve been asked whether he’s a show dog or a Service Dog…. he’s both but his main function and purpose is as a Service Dog. Here’s an prime example ~ even at Dog Shows he fulfills his Service Dog roll first and foremost, recently keeping me away from a Judge who had a jacket on that had the strong fumes of dry cleaning. That was an interesting situation amidst many, many dog owners, breeders, etc. observing. As Jack refused to let the Judge near me and just before the Judge kicked Jack out of the ring for not allowing the Judge to examine him (a very bad thing to happen to a show dog), I quickly explained to him that Jack was my Service Dog, chemical fumes was what he was trained to keep me from and the dry cleaning chemical smell on his jacket was going to prevent me from presenting/showing him my dog. He took off his jacket, approached, and everything went as it was supposed to and with many compliments from the Judge too I might ad. Needless to say ~ the story of Jack’s Service Dog responses spread like wildfire among show participants and everyone got a lesson on what a real Service Dog is all about that day. Jack may have been in the show ring as a show dog but he performed his Service Dog tasks fire and foremost to kept me safe from bodily harm. (Guess I could honestly say I had 2,000+ witnesses that day as to Jack’s being able to perform the tasks he’s trained for, eh? Yet, there is no official standard by which Jack can be adjudged a ligitimate Service Dog…. “as yet” =)

    I’ve kept and continue to keep a diary of Jack’s performance of his duties with the outside hopes that possibly a level of testing will ultimately be developed. I figure if the IRS accepts written choronologies of date, incident, and other such pertinent issues as verification of facts or legitimate “proof”… certainly the DOJ, ADA or any regulatory authority as may be employed will accept Jack’s validation via my diary of date, names, incident, etc. And, hey =) if not, then I’ve got the makings of a really good book about Service Dogs and what they actually do, eh?

    Hope this helps. I’ve actually been doing what DOJ suggested all along and Jack is leading by example through the performance of the tasks for which he has been trained…. whether he has his vest on or not =) The written standard of training is “to perform tasks which mitigate” a person’s difficulties.

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  5. Kelly Larkin

    Christopher ~ my mistake in not mentioning specifically: at least 3 tasks which mitigate a person’s difficulties, AND the new ADA rules of 3/11 specifically denote issues concerning dogs which provide only emotional support as not… NOT… being Service Dogs but then it goes into a dog’s training of mitigating such psychiatric PHYSICAL difficulties as waking an individual from ‘night terrors’, detecting and reducing the effects of a panic attack, etc. Read, read, read =)

    As good background info, and very comprehensive web page, here’s a 12/1/05 page of interest:

    But for THE 3/15/11 ADA laws/regs, etc:

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