With the simple click of a computer mouse, nearly anyone can purchase a certificate and vest for their dog, portraying it as a service animal and enabling them to happily take their pooch to almost any public establishment they desire. The process seems simple and harmless enough to many, but it is this behavior that puts the reputation and respect of service dogs and their handlers at risk.
There is evidence that service dogs have been important working companions since the time of the Roman Empire. They help their handlers in multiple ways, whether mentally or physically. Unfortunately, pets masquerading as service dogs have slowly become a societal norm, creating unjust stereotypes and hurting those who truly need the aid of a service animal.
Senior Kristinah Besser is one of the students who walks the halls with her legitimate service dog, Ozzy, each school day. The prominence and lack of action against fake service dogs has made room for her, along with many other handlers, to be discriminated against unjustly for problems that are out of their control.
“It does hurt when people have fake service dogs because it makes others think that service dogs aren’t well behaved and that they can do the same thing,” Besser said.
The growing idea that anyone can simply put a vest on their pet for it to be a service dog has blurred the line between regular training and the requirements of a working dog. A true service dog should never be aggressive or non-attentive, lack potty-training, or appear to lack other forms of training in any way.
“Normal service dogs are well behaved, and you can hardly tell that they’re there,” Besser said.
A service dog behaves well because, according to servicedogcentral.org, there are three areas of training that all service dogs must be go through and exhibit properly: basic manners, obedience with proofing (skills required for public access), and task training specific to their handler’s needs. The entire process typically takes one and a half to two years, but handlers will have to continue to reinforce these skills to ensure their dog is always working in a proper manner.
Ozzy has been task trained specifically for dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), to alert to Besser’s heartrate if she is going to pass out, and to alert to panic attacks.
The amount of work and effort that goes into the upkeep of service dogs like Ozzy is often misunderstood, which only furthers peoples’ thoughts that they can simply call their dogs service dogs.
“People think that you can just get a service dog but it’s training every day,” Besser said. “It doesn’t matter if you get a program dog. It’s constantly nonstop training.”
To keep this issue from becoming even greater than it already is, there are obligations that we must take on. If you see or encounter a fake service dog, don’t ignore the situation, as the owner may continue to believe that what they are doing is OK. Instead, Besser recommends talking to the manager of the establishment and allowing them to take care of the problem in a professional manner.
It’s also important that real handlers and their dogs are respected as individuals and as a working pair. Not only is distracting a service dog a class three misdemeanor, but it can seriously harm the handler if the dog misses an important alert. Besser and Ozzy have experienced many forms of harassment or attempts at distraction by other students who ignore the patches on Ozzy’s vest, including people recording or taking photos of him, pulling his tail, and peers barking at or mocking the pair.
“We have signs, and nobody really cares,” Besser said. “It seems like people just enjoy hurting other people.”
Our society needs to do our best to be as aware of this issue as possible. People who have trained service dogs need them—very often in life-and-death situations. Therefore, it is our job to respect service dogs and their handlers, while also combatting fake service dogs, who are detrimental to the image and lives of those that are a part of the service animal community.