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Service Dog “ImPAWsters”

Just recently I was chatting with an employee of an exclusive resort we were visiting, and I mentioned that I…

Just recently I was chatting with an employee of an exclusive resort we were visiting, and I mentioned that I wished there were dog-friendly rooms available. He said, “Oh that’s easy… Just register your dog online as an emotional support animal and you can take him with you anywhere… That’s what I did!” Can you believe he made that recommendation?

While it’s hard to pinpoint an actual statistic, it is widely documented that there is an increase in “fake” service dogs. Google it…it’s unbelievable. You can actually order a vest, fake license/registration, etc. on Amazon to make it look like your pet is legit. As much as I would like to have my dog go everywhere with me, passing him off a pet as a service dog is just plain wrong.

The Importance of a Service Dog

Service dogs have an important role to play. The dog is responsible for someone’s well-being… does it get any more important than that? It takes anywhere from 6 months to 24 months to properly train a service dog, depending on the type of disability he is being trained to assist. Service dogs must be wholly focused on their owner, pay no attention to distractions, and must be highly skilled in performing specific tasks. Many service dogs are actually bred explicitly for the job by organizations who train and place them. These organizations have very high standards and not all of the dogs make the grade. “Dropouts” are placed with families as pets.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) provide emotional support to someone who has a condition requiring a calming presence. For example, ESA’s have been a tremendous help to many of our returning soldiers who suffer from PTSD. The problem is that any dog can be titled as an emotional support animal, and emotional support animals do not have to be professionally trained. Not only that – as the employee of the exclusive resort advised above – you can go online and register any dog for the task. So as some of these professional looking ESA’s wear their vest and are admitted anywhere, those that are misbehaving are making a bad name for Service dogs. In my opinion, these dogs should have to, at a minimum, obtain their Canine Good Citizen Title.

The Consequences of a Pet Posing as a Service Dog

The validity of a true service animal should not be questioned. Service dogs train rigorously for that honor, and their owner has a huge financial investment in them, some dogs costing upwards of $25,000. Because of the recent exploitation, however, fake service dogs are beginning to negatively impact the acceptance and opinion of both the real service dogs and their handlers. Many disabled persons are regularly forced into confrontations concerning their dog’s access rights. People who legitimately need service dogs should not have to face the suspicions of those who are trying to circumvent the system.

What happens when an untrained dog poses as a service dog? There are so many reports of fake service dogs causing disruptions in public. These “impawsters” exhibit poor training and manners. They may react aggressively to situations that a trained service dog would be desensitized to. There have been dogs posing as service dogs defecating and urinating in stores and restaurants, barking, growling, knocking people over, jumping, etc.. A true service dog is nearly invisible to others while in public.

There was an article published this week about a blind man’s service dog who was attacked by another so-called “service dog”. It was proven afterward that the attacker was actually not a service dog… his owner was simply lying. How awful. That poor man… Can you imagine the terror of not being able to see, relying on your dog for everything, and then hearing him cry out in pain? Just for the record, the service dog is fine, but he has a few scars on his muzzle to show for it.

A real threat is that dogs posing as service dogs can be a distraction to a real service dog. Service dogs are not robots, and although they generally will not acknowledge a disturbance, the service dog can be momentarily distracted and in that time, miss a cue from their handler. I read one report of an “impawster” repetitively barking at a service dog while at a restaurant. Although the service dog did not respond, his handler could see that it was “unnerving” to him. This type of annoyance could compromise the ability of a service dog to perform his duties.

There are so many “gray” areas of what legally defines a service dog. This uncertainty leaves the door wide open for abuse and fraud. Twelve states now have laws to punish offenders who misrepresent a pet as a service animal. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. With all the gray areas, many people will get off with a slap on the wrist. We need definitive guidelines and stringent laws to protect the Service Dog.

I would love to be able to take Rex with me everywhere I go. He’s such an important part of my life. He’s “family”. But out of respect for the amazing work real service dogs perform, and the needs of the people who rely on them, there is no way I would think of passing him off as an “impawster”. I’m sure you agree.

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