Critter talk: The Great Service Dog Scam!

About Dr. Patty Khuly
Dr. Patty is a small animal veterinarian in Miami, Florida, where she practices medicine at Sunset Animal Clinic and serves on the board of the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association.
View all posts by Dr. Patty Khuly →

Last year I offered you what was perhaps the most hate mail-inciting post I’ve ever written. In it, I bemoaned the fact that pit bulls were banned in Miami-Dade County, where I live. I protested that the only way to legally keep a pit bull within the confines of my county’s borders was to keep one as a service dog (as I’d just learned back then, the Americans with Disabilities Act trumps any local law).

Service Dog App Critter talk: The Great Service Dog Scam!

Courtesy of patriotpaws.org.

In so doing, however, (and here’s where I went wrong) I referenced my own pit bull foster dog at the time and pointed out the irony: that I had only to call her a service dog to keep her safe from the county pit bull cops, since law enforcement can take away your dog and have her killed, but they can’t ask you to actually prove whether she’s a service dog or not.

Clarification: In no way was it my intention to advocate in favor of the kind of service dog fraud I’m well aware happens altogether too often. In fact, I’d written previous posts clearly condemning this kind of unscrupulous, service-dog-faking behavior. Yet that didn’t keep at least one disgruntled reader from panning my post on a service dog list serve, characterizing it as evidence of my own willingness to fake a dog’s service status.

Hence, how my e-mail inbox managed to get pelted by a virtual hailstorm of vilification on the subject. It was not a fun couple of weeks. Every time I logged on I could feel my body’s instinctive response to the negativity I half-felt I deserved for raising the topic at all.

By that time, however, it was no longer worth clarifying my point of view on the subject, or explaining that I’d meant the opposite of what had been inferred from my post. (Yes, irony can be a hard thing to convey clearly and effectively, especially when the subject is an emotional one.) I simply apologized for any intimation that service dogs could or should be faked and promised to be careful about how I wrote about this issue in the future.

This was why I’d totally abandoned the subject of service dogs — in any capacity — until now. Though I believe it worthy of continued discussion, and the issue undoubtedly deserves a higher profile as a trend that must be addressed, the fact remains: Once insulted, any given community can be really, really unforgiving … despite any well-meaning clarifications. So I wasn’t about to go there again without a really, really good reason.

Lately, I’ve had a few. Consider…

1 …the gorgeous pointer I saw prancing through the airport last week with one of those fake service dog vests. Now, the dog may have been the real deal but the vest was one I’d seen before, being worn by a client’s pooch (my, how she loved to show off her dog’s mail-order service dog credentials!). Further, this dog looked for all the world like a premium exhibition candidate.

Now, I may not be an AKC judge (and thank God for that!) but after years and years of dog repro work, I know a “Class A” show dog when I see one; especially when he’s being handled by a pro.

No, this was no service dog. I would almost bet my career on it.

2 …the career salesman client who asked how he might get his obese (and therefore over-the-weight-limit) miniature pinscher service-dog-certified so he might take him on all of his business trips. After explaining that the rules were in place to protect the truly needy and that veterinarians weren’t in the habit of flouting the law, he relented and agreed to pursue the recommended weight loss solution instead.

3 …the “service dog” I saw in the supermarket a few months ago. This purse-bound Yorkie was nothing if not the average, oblivious totee owned by the ubiquitous Gucci-slave Miamian we all know and (do not) love. Her chilly chastisement of the Publix manager, who displayed poor form by asking for her credentials, impressed the entire line of folks behind her with “My husband’s a lawyer!”

4 …this week’s widely distributed Sun Sentinel article on the subject of service dog fraud:

Owners and trainers of service dogs are increasingly angry at pet owners who pass their animals off as service dogs by using phony credentials.

The impostors go to the Internet to buy vests, ID cards and certificates for their dogs. The deception allows their pets to live in restricted housing, accompany them inside restaurants and hotels or fly for free in airplane cabins rather than in cargo holds.

So begins an unfortunately all-too-limited piece on a subject that deserves more traction than it currently gets. After all, service dog fakery is on the rise, which can only mean two things:

a. Those who are truly disabled and require animals to perform specific functions are potentially getting short shrift from businesses that would reject their qualified patronage on the basis of their non-human accompaniments. This, because of those who have passed off their less-than-serviceable, behaviorally-challenged pets as representative of legitimate “service dog” assistants.

b. Pet owners are increasingly unwilling to accept the status quo when it comes to where their pets are allowed to go. They demand equal access to airplanes, trains, public transportation, restaurants, and other establishments. Unfortunately, some bad actors reject legal limitations on their pets’ free access not by fighting the fundamental fairness of these laws, but by thumbing their noses at legislation whenever loopholes beckon — never mind the collateral damage.

Now, while a would seem to take precedence in all conversations on the subject, can you blame me for raising b? After all, it’s the most reasonable explanation for why the trend towards service dog scams seems to be picking up steam. It only makes sense that service dog fraud would raise its ugly head in a society where dogs are relegated to the smallest parks and the crummiest beaches, banned from eateries and retail shopping venues, and generally regarded as pariahs by the transportation industry.

Clearly we need to promote greater access, safer travel and fairer laws for all pets, not just for service dogs. Because when the alternatives to service dogdom include not just dog-less dining but dodgy transportation and right-to-death legislation, it only makes sense that the public would revolt. Unfortunately, it also means that the ethically challenged and just plain ignorant will continue to exploit the law’s inadequacies on the backs of the disabled

Dr. Patty Khuly

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Posted by on April 13, 2011. Filed under Animals,Commentary,CRITTER TALK,Pets. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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25 Responses to Critter talk: The Great Service Dog Scam!

  1. woody Reply

    April 13, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Breed-specific legislation is an way of excluding “undesirable people” (people of color, mainly) from entering a community without actually prohibiting them; instead, you prohibit–threaten to kill–their dogs.
    I betcha it works like a charm…

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      April 13, 2011 at 11:53 am

      That never occurred to me. I’ll be thinking about it now. Thanks Woody.

    • Feek Reply

      February 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Thats how our HOA does it. No pit bulls allowed. No troublemakers move in

  2. lazersedge Reply

    April 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Dr. Patty you always post interesting information. This was a really good post. I must admit that I have thought about getting Rascal a Service Dog vest so he could go shopping with me but never did. I was always afraid he would spend too much. Seriously though, I could just never bring myself to do that anymore than I could take a handicap parking place. I think karma will catch up with folks that do those things.

  3. D. White Reply

    April 14, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Are owners of legitimate service dogs required to carry a card to that effect? Wouldn’t this curb most of the nonsense from happening? Well…of course you could fake the card… There will always be people trying to stretch issues beyond their original meaning. It just seems a shame for this to happen when real service dogs are such a help to their human owners.

    • Marijane Reply

      March 1, 2012 at 12:09 am

      No, service dog owners are not required to carry a card, or any other form of identification. You are right, cards can be forged, and right now, ANY place that offers to ‘certify’ or ‘register’ a dog as a service dog for a fee is an absolute scam.

      I wish this article would also have mentioned that faking a service dog is a CRIME. It is federal fraud, as well as being fraud at the state level as well. Most states have specific legislation making service dog a fraud a misdemeanor. On the state level, you can be heavily fined or even arrested for service dog fraud. On the federal level, you face permanent lifelong loss of social security benefits.

      • Michael John Scott Reply

        March 1, 2012 at 3:14 am

        Thanks Marijane for your comment. I wasn’t aware it was a crime.

    • Tabitha Reply

      March 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      People with disabilities are allowed to have a dog that has been trained to mitigate their disability. That makes that dog a service dog. Period! It does NOT matter WHO trained it and they do NOT need ANY proof, card, certification, registration, vest, backpack, or anything else! If the law required any of that extra stuff (which would just be for the sake of businesses who want to deny dogs they don’t like when they already have the acceptable right to ask a person to leave if the service dog is creating some kind of nuisance like non-stop barking) that would put up a roadblock for those with disabilities when the ADA is about providing accessibility for those that have been limited by their circumstance, not because those poor people find comfort about their lot in life because of the dog, but because the dog negates those limitations and improves their lot in life so that they are able to live and fuction independently. However, although they are not required by law, having any of those items does not make the dog a “faker”, as those, that are able to afford the cost or meet the criteria set up by the businesses that sell them, do so to minimize all the access challenges that they come across day in and day out. The only thing that makes a “service dog” fake is if the person does not have a disability and/or the dog is not trained to assist with their specific disability. The only thing that makes “credentials” or “service vests” fake (they can be hand-made or mail-oredered or from a service dog program; it doesn’t matter) is if the person claims that this is the credentials or service vest, etc required by law. As far as businesses, all they are allowed to ask is if it is a service dog and what tasks the dog has been trained to perform. They cannot ask about the person’s disability (that would be violating their right to privacy) and they cannot ask for credentials, service dog vest, or any “proof” (such as a demonstration) since the law does not require one and does not allow businesses to require them.

      • Feek Reply

        February 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm

        Well they dont come into my busness.. because unless they are blind they get ignored, if they dont take the hint they get asked to LEAVE or be treaspassed. I dont play these service animal games, I am allergic to most of them anyway.. so I will not tolerate them near me.

        • Kimbot Reply

          September 22, 2013 at 2:39 am

          Feek, actually what you’re doing is illegal. Denying access to someone with a disability and their well-behaved SD or SDIT is also unethical. There are several disabilities an SD can mitigate, such as alert to impending seizures, low/high blood sugar levels, redirect children with autism, etc. They can also be any breed. The key here is that they are “well behaved”. Even an ill-mannered SD can legally be asked to be removed from your establishment, but you cannot deny initial access based on your allergies or past experiences. That is simply illegal. If you feel an animal is not an SD or SDIT you do have the option of calling and alerting the police, but if you are wrong you could be in for quite a consequence.

        • Feek Izanazhol Reply

          October 18, 2014 at 10:43 pm

          Feek, what kind of business do you have? Where is it located?

          I’d love to bring my service dog by and see if you have the nerve to “trespass” us.

          I guarantee I’ll have a lawsuit filed by the end of the day.

          You’re clearly a jackass.

  4. Four Dinners Reply

    April 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Patty. You love animals and you love dogs and you love Pit Bulls.

    Fuck em (not the Pits obviously) You just be you and sod the detractors and the salicious e-mailers.

    Animals count. Vitriolic e-mailers don’t.

    Pit Bulls are what they are. It isn’t their fault.

    Strut your stuff babe and bugger the assholes.

    Did a Pit ever bomb anyone? Did a Pit ever mug anyone? Did a Pit ever shoot anyone? Did a Pit ever rape anyone? Did a Pit ever bite anyones arm off?…er…quit while you’re ahead Dinners…;-)

  5. Zocora Reply

    April 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    “Clearly we need to promote greater access, safer travel and fairer laws for all pets, not just for service dogs. Because when the alternatives to service dogdom include not just dog-less dining but dodgy transportation and right-to-death legislation, it only makes sense that the public would revolt.”

    THIS^^^^ So much this. If people were able to take their animals with them without being harassed or worrying about them being abused or killed, they wouldn’t feel compelled to lie about their status.

    If businesses want to make rules about pet behavior like they do human behavior, ie “No shoes, no shirt, no service”, fine, do so; but stop with the stupid forbidding people to take their pets places.

    No one would dare forbid someone taking their child someplace; and I’m not saying pets are human, but they are very important to the people who love them.

    • Feek Reply

      February 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      I already made those rules for my business. NO ANIMALS. Keep them at home, if you cant go outside with out your fake service animal, you should not be outside at all. End of story. Sue me, I dare each one I chase off to, not one has.

      • whereareyou Reply

        May 28, 2014 at 9:35 am

        Where is this supposed store?
        As a disabled person with a legitimate SD I’d love to get thrown from your store and let the Justice Dept. fine you 50,000 as a lesson.
        My dog is hypo-allergenic, well trained and goes everywhere, including your store if I ever get the chance!

  6. Katie Reply

    December 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Just wanted to mention that while people who impersonate their pet dogs as service dogs are out there, (and are really offensive to those of us who actually use service dogs) there are just as many people who have “invisible disabilities” that are not obvious. I only even bothered mentioning anything because it could have well been me you saw with the elegant showy pointer. My dog Ben was supposed to be a show dog, (my family is active on the show circuit) but at 4 months he started wigging out right before I fainted. I have dysautonomia. I faint on a daily basis because I can’t control my blood pressure. To look at me, I look like a fit and healthy young woman. I have been training dogs all my life. I trained ben myself, (owner training is perfectly legal) and just because I wanted to, not because it’s law I took him for a cgc (easiest test ever) and had an evaluator rate us on the ADI public access test (much more comprehensive). Ben’s gear was purchased online. he is task trained in 7 tasks independent of the instinctual alerting behavior. And yes, an AKC judge would love him. Had he not gone into this “profession” he would have shown. And he (like all pointers) prances. Ik some people have problems with owner training, but at the same time, last year at the doctors I was in the waiting room and Ben was in a down stay at my feet and he was lunged at by a service dog with a vest from a well known service dog school. The poor woman could not restrain the dog and a nurse stepped in. on the way out she commanded the dog to open the handicapped doors, and he ignored her and continued to growl at my dog (who did not move) and eventually the nurse pushed the for button for her too. So, it’s not about the vest, it’s about the dog.

  7. Jackmeoff Reply

    February 6, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Rather had dogs everywhere than children. “Service Child.” That vest would allow the typical, obnoxious child owner the “right” to leave their screaming ahole brat sitting beside you in the airplane.

  8. Julie Reply

    December 1, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    I can’t believe the number of people who ask me, “Where did you get that cute vest for your dog? I want one so I can take him around with me, too.” I used to tell them where I got mine, and then I wised up, and changed my approach. I try to explain that the dog has to be a service dog and I say that service dogs are for people with disabilities. Often, if we get to talking, I can get the person to realize that it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to bring their Fido to work with them, anyway, legally or not, if Fido isn’t medically necessary.

  9. Dani Reply

    March 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    I have a guide dog. It is ridiculous the number of ignorant people I run into. These are people who cannot tell the difference between a service dog and a pet. I am guessing the same thing everyone else does, they probably had a fake service dog experience or they’re just ignorant about the law. Sure if people were allowed to bring their pets everywhere, no one would do this fake service dog thing. But then you will have the people who think their dog does not need to be on a leash, and I am pretty sure you will have plenty of idiots who come out with their aggressive dog. That will be pleasant for the public, if pets were allowed to travel everywhere. I already have a lot of people in my area who have their obnoxious and aggressive dogs running around off leash. But seriously, pets everywhere? Could you imagine being in a market and hearing all that barking or finding food everywhere. I would feel bad for anyone working in those places. I think children yelling screaming and crying is already annoying enough. Maybe They should make a rule for that as well. If you cannot control your misbehaving child, then leave it at home with somebody to take care of it. That is already bad enough, we do not need people with aggressive animals in restaurants and markets are shopping places. It is really funny how the people who have fake service dogs usually do not get questions about it. However us with real service dogs seem to get harassed quite a bit. At least that has been my experience. Of course those schools do give you real identification cards. Not for anything but if you Don’t have anything to hide, then you normally don’t get offended when somebody asks about your dog. In other words, The second someone gives me an attitude, I don’t tell them it’s a service dog and you cannot Ask anything about it, because obviously they are allowed ask two questions. I simply and straight out tell people that she is a guide dog.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      March 23, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing with us Dani. I learned a lot from your words.

  10. dusty debandi Reply

    March 16, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    It is a federal & state crime punishable by a fine and up to one year in jail to pass a non service dog off as a legit service dog.

    If you obtained a certification along with ID for your dog that is not professionally trained to be a service dog, then you are in violation of that law and committing fraud.

    I am blind and had my $60,000 guide Dog that I obtained from Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio attacked by a person who had their dog set up to look like a service dog when it was not. It was not sociable nor behaviorally trained to work in all environment. I had to suffer the consequences as well as my dog of that person committing fraud by passing his pet off as a service dog. It is a felony to interfere with a working dog and by his dog attacking my dog….he interfered with my dog being able to do his job and put my own life at risk. We have a hard enough time getting people to respect what our dog do and to understand that we need them to perform task that normal human beings take for granted. shame on you! I have absolutely NO respect for you. I understand wanting to spare your dog from being put down, but if that’s the case, then move. Don’t bring down the disabled and blind community because you want your fur baby with you. We suffered great lose to qualify for our dogs and they do not use pit bulls anyway as service dogs. They use labs, German shepherds, viszula, boxers, golden retrievers and poodles. We paid a great price (that being independence) to qualify for our dogs and went thru much scrutiny and medical reports to do so.

    • Dusty Izwrong Reply

      October 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      You are not correct, Dusty. Several agencies have trained pitbulls to be service dogs. Service animals are NOT breed specific.

      Although my dog is a GSD, he was among several breeds during his training – including three chihuahuas, a beagle, and a bull-mastiff.

  11. Sparrow Reply

    August 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I have a Pitt bull mix service dog that I am training myself. He has beautiful manners and is fully socialized, all sizes and kinds of animals and all people. I started taking him into Pet Smart, Tractor Supply (both are pet friendly just anyway) and our local Lowes at 6wks old when I got him. He got petted and loved on by kids, black white green and purple people in all dress and uniforms including police and mail persons. I named him “Bud” and, of course, that’s what everyone naturally calls him, so he thinks everyone’s his friend. I wondered if that was a good idea until he placed himself between me and some controversy and nudged me away from the danger–he has good sense: that person was someone he’d known all his life.

    Bud has grown uberlarge, has friendly body language and big brown eyes. I have finally learned to simply say, “I’m sorry, he’s working” to the seeming multitudes of everyone who asks if they can pet him.

    My disability is not apparent to the casual onlooker. It is very tempting to get a vest, patch and id card just so we look more official to the general public. However, to those who know, we would then appear fraudulent. So what to do? I have a perscrip for my dog but I don’t want to flash it to the world: the extent of my issues is my business, Bud keeps me on an even keel in more ways than one. If he ever shows his butt in public, which so far and at 10mo of age he has not, we will leave immed, i’ve already got a plan. Just because he’s a service animal does not mean we have any special privileges beyond access. That means a lot to me and I never want to blow it.

    So the question remains: to vest or not to vest?
    Do you lose your legitimacy the moment you try and appear legitimate?
    What to do when shop owners challenge you because you have no id on him?
    I tire of explaining things to every cop on the force. I win anyway.
    So, do I go to coffee shops who’s owners have challenged me? Darn right and whenever possible!

    Pittador as service dog: my personal experience is that 99.9% of people love Pitts. Mine is clean and healthy, quiet and obedient. He gets plenty of play time–the lab in him loves to chase the ball and he has dog-friends. He is still a puppy. Already, though, he takes on different mannerisms depending on which harness is on him (are we going for a walk? Or is it the car seat belt harness?). I’m thinking that a vest would put him in ‘work-mode’ but, like I said, i don’t want to blow our legitimacy.

    It seems like the best way to prove your legitimacy is to use no vest, patch or id card, carry no papers and be willing to talk with the cops. Again and again and again.

    What a crazy mixed-up world!

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      August 2, 2014 at 4:18 pm

      Your experiences have been interesting Sparrow, and I see your points, however I would make sure my dog was wearing a vest and that I had the proper identification.

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