Fraudulent Service Dogs: Why This Growing Menace Threatens Those with Genuine Need

Written by: Lindsay Giguiere



Time to read 5 min

In recent years, there has been a growing concern about the use of fraudulent service dogs across the USA. These are regular pets, emotional support animals (ESAs), or therapy animals fraudulently passed off as trained service dogs.

It’s a trend that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and individuals who flaunt their regular pets as bona fide service dogs are knowingly or unknowingly abusing the ADA law.

So the questions are: how can someone tell the difference? And how can you ensure that your animal meets all the criteria for a service animal?

In this article, we'll discuss the issue of fraudulent service dogs, how they manage to go undetected, and the tell-tale signs of a fraudulent service dog. The aim is to help you if you believe you need a service animal to avoid inadvertently breaking the rules.

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How Are Fraudulent Service Dogs Going Undetected?

According to the ADA, there are only two questions that someone may ask a person with a service dog:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Moreover, the ADA also specifies questions that cannot be asked, including:

  1. The nature or extent of a person's disability.
  2. Requiring the animal to wear identifying tags or a vest.
  3. Asking the dog to demonstrate its ability to perform tasks or work.
  4. Proof that the animal has been trained, certified, or licensed as a service animal.

It is this last point that makes it so difficult for people to verify whether a service animal is genuine or not and whether the handler has the right to specific protections under the ADA. So, while these laws are intended to protect people with disabilities and safeguard their rights, they also make it difficult for people to distinguish a genuine service dog from a fraudulent one.

This creates confusion and even leads to abuse of the system. For example, anyone can easily buy official-looking "service dog" vests online and then pass their pet off as a service dog. This situation only adds confusion to service dog laws.

On top of this, at the time of writing, there is no national service dog registry; it simply does not exist. Overall, this makes it hard for people to recognize a fraudulent service dog from a real one.

How to Spot a Fraudulent Service Dog

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While a service dog vest may help a fake service dog enter a public place, they usually give themselves away by their untrained behavior.

According to the ADA, "it is training that distinguishes a service animal from other animals...[and] the task that the service animal is trained to do must be directly related to the owner's disability."

In short, the fundamental difference between a fake service dog and a legitimate one is that service dogs are impeccably trained. They undergo up to two years of training, which can cost thousands of dollars. They are not only trained to perform tasks and work that aid people with disabilities, but they also go through rigorous socialization and house training. They do not act like ordinary pets while on the job.

Here are some potential behaviors that fake service dogs may exhibit:

  1. Being carried or wheeled around by the owner.
  2. Tugging or pulling on a leash or not having a leash at all.
  3. Whining, barking, growling.
  4. Showing any signs of aggression, including toward other people or other dogs.
  5. Biting or nipping at people or other animals.
  6. Wandering or not staying by the handler's side.
  7. Begging for or stealing food.
  8. Not being house trained or marking territory.
  9. Sniffing people, animals, or objects.
  10. Biting or damaging property.
  11. Losing focus or being easily distracted.
  12. Appearing frightened or looking stressed.
  13. Getting excited easily.

Of course, there may be some exceptions. For example, if a service dog is trying to alert a handler of an impending panic attack, they may vocalize as part of their training.

However, it isn't difficult to spot a fraudulent service dog once you know the tell-tale signs to look out for. This is because service dogs will not display "regular" dog behaviors while they are working. They are working professionals and will act as such.

Why are Fake Service Animals a Problem?

When poorly trained service animals come into contact with trained ones, they may exhibit uncontrollable behavior, leading to excitement or potential aggression. Injuring a service animal can severely impact the person they are assisting,  so it’s vital to prevent fake service animals from compromising the well-being of legitimate ones.

What to Do When You See a Fraudulent Service Dog

The best way to combat the use of fake service dogs is for the public to educate themselves. Knowledge about the harm fraudulent service dogs can cause both handlers and the service dog community could be a powerful tool.

When you see or suspect that someone is using a fake service dog and want to make a report, there are two ways you can do it. You can either call the non-emergency number to the local police or make a report directly to the ADA. For access to phone numbers and more information, you can visit the ADA website.

Using fake service dogs is an unfortunate but real trend. It is against the law in 31 states, to fraudulently pass off a regular pet as a service dog. In California, under Penal Code 565.7, it counts as a misdemeanor with a potential six-month jail sentence and a fine of up to $1000.  Missouri is among other states that have also taken steps to address this problem by criminalizing the use of fake service animals, with offenders facing charges of a class C misdemeanor, which may result in a 15-day jail sentence and a fine of up to $700.

How to Ensure Your Pet is a Legitimate Service Animal When You Genuinely Need Their Support

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

So, to ensure your pet complies with the ADA requirement, you’ll need to ensure they are trained to provide the specific tasks your condition requires.

There are plenty of options available to help you, from intensive in-person training to more affordable online coaching programs. However, a note of caution. Simply having a trained service animal does not mean you comply with the ADA requirements.  You need to be certified by a licensed professional therapist or doctor, as having a condition which requires the support of a service animal.

Any reputable training organization which certifies that your pet is correctly trained and able to behave in the required manner will request proof that your service animal forms part of a prescribed treatment plan.

Toriano Sanzone, Master Trainer and Head of the Free My Paws Training Academy, explains:

‘Before accepting a client I always ask them to provide a note from their therapist or doctor saying that, yes, they will benefit from a service dog, and what the tasks are that they need their service dog to provide. We require that because that’s one way that we can weed out those people who just want a dog to fly in the cabin on a plane.’

Fraudulent Service Dogs - Bottom Line

Passing a non-certified animal off as a service animal is ethically wrong, can cause harm to others, and result in legal problems. The hope is that states will not only educate the public about this growing problem but also find ways to enforce laws while still preserving the rights of people with disabilities.

In the meantime, if you’re considering whether to certify your pet as a PSA, you’ll find all the information you need HERE!