FRANKLIN, Ind.— It is becoming increasingly common to see animals in businesses. They may even be wearing a vest or collar that says, “service dog.” But FOX59 talked to service dog owners who say they their own dogs’ legitimacy is threatened by a rise in fakes.
“When someone fakes a service dog we’re harassed, we’re accused, and sometimes we’re even kicked out of stores when our dogs are perfectly well behaved,” said Kayli Selburg.
Unruly behavior can leave a bad taste behind, marring the reputation of legitimate service dogs, and business owners skeptical of any dog coming into their establishment.
Selburg has Dysautonomia, a nervous system disorder which causes her to faint and grow weak. Selburg trained her dog Luna to assist with specific tasks to help when she loses consciousness and is physically unable to retrieve her medication and other items.
“When I have my bad days, if I’m too weak to do simple tasks that a lot of people do themselves, it helps,” Selburg explained.
In public, Luna wears a service dog vest, but she isn’t legally required to. Selburg says it helps people visually identify Luna as a trained service animal, but she fears other people are abusing the system.
Service dog vests and collars are available for-sale on the internet and in some stores. There are dozens of legitimate-seeming websites offering photo identifications, badges and certifications for service dogs, but none of those websites can verify that a dog has undergone extensive training or actively assists a person with a disability.
Defining A Service Dog:
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “service dogs” are defined as dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
Those tasks include guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, pulling a wheelchair, signaling a medical condition, reminding someone to take a medication, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and performing other duties.
The training, however, doesn’t have to be professionally done. People with disabilities, according to the ADA, have the right to train the dog themselves.
But the law is also clear; protections guaranteed to legitimate service dogs trained are not guaranteed to emotional support and therapy dogs, whose sole purpose is to provide comfort.
“There’s become great blurring between what is a service dog, what is an emotional support dog and what is a therapy dog,” explained Sally Irvin.
Irvin founded Indiana Canine Assistant Network, a non-profit which trains service dogs from birth until they’re two years old.
As a veteran handler and service dog expert, Irvin knows how to spot a pet in a vest versus the real thing.
“Therapy dogs are very different,” Irvin explained therapy dogs are often passed off as service dogs by fake vests and badges; but they’re not trained to perform tasks, they’re not allowed to accompany handlers into stores and restaurants and they’re not trained for one specific person.
“On the surface it’s incredibly easy to fake a service dog,” like Selburg, Irvin sees more people buying vests and badges and trying to pass their pets off as legitimate service animals. It’s frustrating, she says, because it can give true service dogs a bad reputation.
Service dogs are not only invaluable to their handlers, their training carries over into their behavior in public. When they’re out and about, service dogs are actively working and on alert. They’re trained not to vocalize, tug or get distracted—behaviors not guaranteed by a pet in a service dog vest.
Irvin says there are a few ways to spot a potential fake based on appearance and behavior: dogs that are acting out, poorly groomed, seeking attention, are not house broken and are disobedient are more than likely not true service dogs.
“What people don’t’ realize they’re doing is putting an incredible amount of harm and potential difficulty for people with legitimate disabilities to have access,” Irvin explained, “once the fake dogs that don’t behave well start to increase, then that’s going to be much more hurdles and difficulty for people with legitimate dogs.”
Another major concern for service dog owners, is the chance that another dog could attack or disrupt a trained service dog. Oftentimes, if a service animal is attacked or traumatized they’re considered disrupted and must be retired.
Businesses are legally allowed to ask two questions if they’re concerned about a service dog’s authenticity: first, is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and second, what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. They cannot ask about specific disabilities or ask for medical documentation or proof of training.
Which makes interpretation and identification vague, and oftentimes difficult.
There is currently no legislation in Indiana punishing owners who try to pass off their untrained pets as the real things.
Irvin says she has talked to Indiana State Senators about possibly making service dog impersonation a misdemeanor, she says she is encouraged that the conversation is at least starting. But enforcement could prove difficult.
“It’s interesting, we all say ‘fake service dogs’ but it’s really a fake person doing something just because they can. I always say, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” said Irvin.