Story by Kari Cleland
It’s too easy to buy a service vest online these days. But does that make your dog a service dog? Fake service dogs and their behaviors are negatively impacting the lives of disabled people in our community.
WHAT IS A SERVICE DOG?
A service dog has been specially trained to perform a specific task and is legally considered medical equipment. Service dogs can be trained to perform different kinds of tasks, for example, medical alert dogs.
“Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. (Americans with Disabilities Act 1990, revised 2010).”
STATE OF ARIZONA LAW
In 2018, the State of Arizona made it illegal to fraudulently misrepresent any animal as a service animal to a public place or business (Arizona Revised Statute 11-1024). Anyone who is caught trying to pass off their pet as a service dog can be fined $250 or more.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A SERVICE DOG
A true service dog is so well-trained that you will not even notice it doing its job. A working service dog will silently accompany its owner, inconspicuous at their side. They may bark to alert their owner or to summon help but will never bark or lunge at another dog or person. They will not seek attention for petting from anyone. Their focus needs to be on their owner so they can perform the task they have been trained to do, such as alerting when a seizure is imminent or retrieving a dropped credit card for someone with limited mobility.
“I FELT PARALYZED”
Kari Cleland is a Service Dog Trainer at the Complete Canine. Two of her clients reached out to her after their service dogs were confronted by fake service dogs while helping them go about their daily lives.
“I struggle with dizziness and disorientation as part of my condition,” says Dorely Dal Pozzo, “and Fumo, my service dog, is able to alert me before this happens and prevent a fall.” On a recent shopping trip, a dog in a service vest started barking and pulling its owner to them. “Fumo remained calmly at my side and looked at me for direction. I was startled by the barking and froze in place, not knowing what to do. The barking and lunging continued as the woman pulled her dog away. With the help of Fumo, I was able to snap out of my trance and walk away from them as the barking continued.”
Dorely was speaking with the store manager about the incident when the dog and its owner reappeared. “The dog barked, pulled, and lunged at Fumo in front of the manager. I felt paralyzed and hopeless, and infinitely frustrated,“ she says. “If that dog had gotten away from its owner and hurt Fumo, it could change his ability to be my service dog.”
Dorely concludes “I have a lot to lose in situations like these, so I am on high alert most of the time I am out shopping with Fumo. I work hard with and for my dog, just as he does for me. I just want to be able to shop like anyone else.”
“Service dogs are supposed to make a disabled person feel safer and more independent. One day when I was out, something happened that made me feel anything but,” says Ashleigh Rollins. She and her service dog, Harley, were leaving a grocery store and passed by a dog that was wearing a service vest but being handled by a three-year-old child. “In a moment, the dog jumped on Harley in an aggressive manner that made me and her feel threatened. It charged me and Harley, and almost made me lose my grip on her leash. My dog did not react, but rather obeyed my command to continue towards our car.”
For Ashleigh, “This was scary, and made me afraid and angry. If Harley gets hurt, that’s it! No more service dog for me. That means less independence and safety. I now need to face my fear of my dog being attacked while I’m out in public. This incident also made me angry because there are people like me who actually need a service dog to help them do things. But people who want to take their pet with them wherever they go are putting service animals and their handlers in danger. So please, before you take your pet out in public, claiming it as a service dog, please think about what the results of your actions could be. It could be way worse than having to leave your animal at home.”
The partnership between a service dog and its owner takes years of training. Fake service dogs do them a disservice.