The news has been full of stories about fake assistance animals. There have been reports of untrained and aggressive service dogs and tales of emotional support peacocks, squirrels, hamsters and snakes.
As a trainer who spent over nine years training service dogs for a local service dog organization, fake service dogs are a hot button for me.
Badly behaved fake service dogs cause people to question the validity of real service dogs. This can make the life of a person with a physical disability and a legitimate service dog incredibly more difficult than it needs to be.
Unfortunately, there is no national organization or agency that certifies service dogs. There are bogus websites that will take your money and “register” your dog as a service animal. They will provide you with a “registration certificate” and an ID card. Anybody can purchase a vest online with patches that read “service dog.” But let me repeat there is no such thing as a national registry.
Larger service dog organizations will certify the dogs they have trained and will provide the handler with an ID card, vest, follow-up assistance and support. But again, this is not part of any sort of national registry that can be referenced. And this doesn’t help individuals who obtained their dog from a small business or trained the dog themselves, which they can do.
And therein lies the problem. How do you tell a legitimate service dog from a fake one?
Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does provide some guidance. The ADA defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA further clarifies that the “work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
The ADA also allows service animals access to any area where the public is permitted. This includes but is not limited to restaurants, grocery stores, places of business, theaters, hotels, public transportation, parks and shopping malls.
Some emotional support dogs also fall into the service dog category; the ADA makes a differentiation between psychiatric and emotional support dogs. If a dog performs a specific task that would prevent an anxiety attack to occur, this dog would qualify as a service (psychiatric) dog. A dog whose mere presence provides comfort (emotional support) would not.
The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Carrier Access Act allows individuals with disabilities to travel with their service animals by air. Emotional support animals are also included.
The DOJ/HUD Fair Housing Act and Federal Rehabilitation Act ensures that service animals may live in housing designated as “no pets allowed.” Again, this also includes emotional support dogs.
Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to multiple individuals in various environments such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools and disaster sites. As with assistance dogs, there is no one agency that certifies therapy dogs. Therapy teams can operate independently or as part of a larger organization.
Besides providing comfort to multiple individuals (as opposed to a service dog that works with a single individual), the other key difference between service dogs and therapy dogs is public access. Service dogs are allowed public access by law; therapy dogs are not.
I have found that the biggest misunderstanding regarding therapy dogs is that they are not guaranteed public access. On numerous occasions, when I have asked a potential client why they want to train their dog to be a therapy dog, one of the reasons is often so they can take the dog out in public.
Therapy dogs do not have the same legal designation as service dogs and therefore are not granted legal public access. Therapy dogs must be invited into public places to perform their therapy work.
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