What's the Harm in Faking a Service Dog?

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I have a friend who lost a leg ten years ago. No one has ever said how lucky he is to have such a cool prosthetic and how they really want one, too. Yet, if he used a dog instead of a prosthetic to function, that's exactly the kind of comments he would get. Even worse--plenty of people are trying to pass as disabled so they can bring their dog everywhere.

I don't think they realize what it means to have a disability so severe that they cannot function at a "normal" level--to be unable to work, go shopping, get around in their own house--without assistance. Constant pain, seizures, loss of vision, hearing or having a life-threatening illness are not good trades for a pet, even a miniature horse, or a really cute monkey.

By expressing a desire for a Service Dog, you're also wishing for the accompanying disability. For a disabled person, hearing an able-bodied person openly wish for a disability (even if you don't actually say those words) is deeply hurtful. It suggests you don't take them or their disability seriously and furthermore, it makes light of the thousands of hours of training and socialization their partner has undergone to perform his [or her] job. Anythingpawsable.com

I have a friend with a disability that is often invisible to strangers. She uses a service dog to pull her wheelchair, or provide balance assistance while walking. The dog can retrieve items and provide a number of other tasks, for which she underwent two years of intensive training.

The cost of a dog like this is around $20,000. While sponsorships are available, one site which places around 75-100 dogs a year, has a current wait list of 1,600 people. That equates to 16-22 years of potential wait time.

"To see someone who threw a cheap vest on their dog's back because they like to have it around is like kicking me in my dislocated knee," one service dog handler said.

Emotional Support Animals are not the same as service animals. They provide much needed comfort to many people. They do not require training, and accordingly do not receive the same protection. Properly documented Emotional Support Animals can be legally kept in housing that prohibits pets. Often times they can be brought on airplanes. But they cannot be brought to restaurants and movie theaters and everywhere their owners go. Unfortunately, the ease with which a pet can be labelled an Emotional Support Animal means that few people really know what rights they do and do not have.

Service animals provide valuable assistance in myriad ways. This full list details ways animals can help with psychiatric disabilities, which are above and beyond the comfort of an Emotional Assistance Animal.

Here are just a few examples of the tasks a trained animal can perform:

  • Bring medication in a crisis, by retrieving bags, even opening cupboards.
  • Bring fluids to swallow medications.
  • Remind their partner to take medication on schedule.
  • Call 911, alert partner to smoke alarms.
  • Provide balance support for walking, ascending and descending stairs.
  • Vigorously lick their partner's face to interrupt an episode of combat side effects.

I was with someone who brought their emotional support dog to a restaurant last week. She had her doctor write her a letter stating her need for such an animal because her condo didn't allow pets and she wanted a dog. The pet sported an orange vest she bought online and sat next to its owner in one of the restaurant's chairs. She couldn't put the dog on the floor because it was not reliably housebroken. The dog ate off the table on one of the restaurant's plates. She told me the dog was "legally allowed anywhere she went," and that she was considering, "getting a letter to make her cat an emotional support animal, too."

The only indicator that [a handler/dog] team is "legit" is the dog's behavior. Service Dogs are well-trained, well-mannered, calm, unobtrusive and handler focused. anythingpawesable.com

In researching this, I went to the American Airlines website to review their policy on service animals and emotional support animals.

To show that an animal is a service animal, you must provide (at least one of the following):
▪ Animal ID card
▪ Harness or tags
▪ Written documentation to verify the service, psychiatric or emotional support status of your animal
▪ Credible verbal assurance

Sounds good, right? One problem:

There are no papers, documents, certifications, vests, tags or special IDs required for Service Dogs in the United States. Under federal law, disabled individuals accompanied by Service Dogs are allowed access to places selling goods or services of any kind, including places offering entertainment, lodging and food.

Yet you can easily register a fake service animal online and have really nice paperwork to prove its necessity. Do you see how the preponderance of fake service animals is making it harder for disabled people with legitimate service animals to get around?

While it's tempting to buy a fake vest online and bring your beloved pet everywhere, think about what you are really saying. Think about what your actions are doing to the community of disabled people who rely on their animal partners to function. If that isn't enough to sway you from faking a service animal, CBS News reported that,

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a federal crime to use a fake dog. And about a fourth of all states have laws against service animal misrepresentation.

However, the need for creation of laws to punish people who are taking advantage of the system is placing the burden of proof on the legitimately disabled.

I am a dog owner and an animal lover, but faking a disability to enjoy your pets' companionship is not only inappropriate, but detrimental to people who rely on service animals to experience a modicum of the able-bodied privilege so many of us take for granted. Calling your pet a service dog is the same as the person you see in the disabled parking spot in the Home Depot parking lot, throwing one hundred pound bags of concrete into their car using their grandmother's parking permit.

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