Seeing in the Dark: Why Posing Your Pet as a Service Animal is Problematic

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To put it simply, dogs are amazing. Whether they are begging for food with those piercing eyes, or smothering you with wet kisses, they make it impossible not to smile.

It is this level of connection and companionship that pushes some pet owners to want to take their pooch everywhere they go -- even if it involves passing their pup off as a service dog.

But while it is quite easy to buy fake service dog papers online, what many pet owners do not realize is that posing their pets as service dogs is not only illegal in several states, but, ultimately, could also end up physically and emotionally hurting their beloved canine friends.

“By breaking the law, you are putting your own pet dog at risk,” said Lolly Lijewski, a guide dog user and a communications specialist based out of Minneapolis, MN. She was quick to point out that in addition to the stress pet dogs face when exposed to hectic environments, if the pet dog bites a person or another dog out of anxiety, this will create another set of problems for both the pet and its owner.

“The cost of a potential physical attack may run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the severity of the attack. Costs can include medical examinations, tests and treatment, and possibly retraining, depending on the psychological impact on the service dog,” said Lijewski.

What many pet dog owners may not realize is that while their pup does well at home, and is friendly with dogs and people, in stressful environments, such as in an airport or a busy restaurant, the unfamiliar noises, smells and people could bring out a whole new behavior in their pet dog -- a behavior they may not be able to control.

“An assistance dog is more than a vest,” said Molly Schulz, Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). “A true assistance dog requires years of professional training and certification to perform specific tasks and provide calm, reliable assistance to individuals with disabilities.”

According to Matthew Dietz, Litigation Director at Disability Independence Group, Inc., a non-profit disability rights advocacy center in Florida, one of the problems we face today is that people do not understand the difference between emotional support animals and service animals. Also, people do not always know how to incorporate their animal into their psychological treatment.

“I receive approximately two or three people calling per week about discrimination against those with service animals or emotional support animals,” said Dietz. “And where the person claims to have a psychiatric service animal or emotional support animal, I ask if that person has a treating doctor or mental health professional who has recommended that they have their animal as an assistance animal. Where the person has papers from an Internet provider, I will not work for them unless they also have a local treating mental health professional.”

Dietz points out that many people do not understand what “proof” needs to be provided to establish a service dog or emotional support animal. He shares, “Some retailers provide a paper that says the dog is a service dog. The law does not require [people] to have written proof of an assistance dog. A service dog is a dog that is individually trained to assist a person with a disability. An emotional support animal’s mere presence ameliorates the effects of a psychological disability. Because there are so many different tasks a service animal can be trained to do,” Dietz continues, “having an official license would be impractical.”

In some cases, many pet owners who buy fake service dog papers online end up being scammed by the online retailers. They buy documents that are commonly good for a year and, consequently, are locked into renewal fees. They also end up buying accessories that in the end do not do anything to keep their pets safe, or help manage their behavior in a crisis.

At the University of the Pacific, which has three campuses in California, a service animal policy was established to create a safe environment for both service and emotional support dogs. The policy allows access to both service and emotional support animals; however, poorly behaved service animals will be asked to leave and then return only once the dog or handler has completed additional training.

“I think there are probably a few reasons that schools are having such a difficult time with therapy dogs and emotional support animals,” said Daniel Nuss, Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at University of the Pacific. “One reason is that many institutions likely did not engage training and education on the topic prior to the influx of requests and quickly became overwhelmed due to a lack of internal expertise and processes.”

The issue of imposter service dogs is multifaceted and complex. On one end, there are service dog handlers who live in fear of having their service dog attacked by an untrained pooch, and the training schools that rely on donations are impacted by the perception ill-behaved pet dogs in vests leave behind. There are people with emotional disabilities who lack training on the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal, and pet owners who are unaware of the risk they are taking when disguising their pet dogs as service animals. Also, federal law is limited in this case, and it is up to each state to create their own service animal policies. But perhaps the biggest problematic piece of this puzzle is the online retailers who are profiting from selling fraudulent papers, and preventing people from receiving the proper education.


Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, the spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine — a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.


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