Untrained "Service Dogs" Can Put Public at Risk

October 18, 2016
Jenina Pellegren

Fraudulent Service Animal claims put the public and well-trained service dogs at risk. Distracting a service dog could result in injury to individuals, the service dog, and their disabled handler.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, defines a service animal as any dog that has undergone training to perform tasks that benefit a person with a physical, sensory, intellectual, mental, or psychiatric disability. Service animals are most commonly associated with guide or Seeing Eye dogs. However, they also provide a variety of other services like hearing or signal assistance, wheelchair pulling, and seizure protection.

Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) are trained to perform a variety of tasks that range from switching on the lights to performing safety checks for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional support animals (ESA) are therapeutic animals that provide comfort and support to individuals with emotional disabilities. According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University, “Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not granted access to places of public accommodation. Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is viewed as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ in a housing unit that has a ‘no pets’ rule for its residents.”

There are approximately 20,000 service dogs in the United States, according to the American Humane Association. This includes Animal Assisted Therapy Service (AAT) dogs, Search and Rescue, and Drug Enforcement Agency dogs. The cost of training and the lifelong care of a service dog comes out to more than $20,000. These animals provide a critical service to many people in need, including children with autism and veterans with PTSD.

According to federal law, service dogs can only have disabled handlers, but there are not any rules requiring specific gear or papers to that would serve to prove that an animal is a legitimate service dog. This gray area can make it easy for owners, who wish to take their pets everywhere, to falsely claim their pets as PSD or ESA.

Service dogs undergo hours of training to become focused, effective, and well-behaved in public. An ill-trained animal puts the public and disabled handlers at risk and distracting a service dog could result in serious injury.

To legally qualify for a PSD, a licensed therapist must prescribe the service. However, some online services provide quick registrations for a fee, making it easy to obtain certification for an animal that is not properly trained. For example, the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), “recognize that [owners] may train [their] own service dog” and, “and will supply [them] with identification to allow [their] service dog to accompany [them] anywhere [they] want or need to go.”

If you are unable to find a doctor to prescribe the service, NSAR claims that they can provide a “licensed and legitimate mental health agency,” willing to offer a letter of prescription to those who qualify. According to Chilhowee Psychological Services, recommended by the NSAR, a certified letter can be obtained between one to two days and their licensed therapist composes and signs the treatment recommendation letter, which is then mailed.

The process is surprisingly simple and unregulated. According to Service Dog Central, a service certification or registration does not mean that an individual dog has been properly trained to be a service dog. Spotting fraudulent claims is as simple as observing behavior. According to their website, “if the animal behaves inappropriately, by disrupting business, behaving aggressively, interfering with other patrons or clients (say by sniffing them or jumping up on them), or toileting inappropriately,” chances are the dog has been improperly certified.

They, as well as the NSAR, cite several “certification/registration for a fee schemes.” They emphasize that claiming a pet as a service dog can be irreparably harmful and damaging to the reputation of service dogs. They warn, “Unless your dog is prepared and trained for the rigors of being a service dog, leave your pup at home!”