7 Facts About Service Dogs and Their Handlers, and Why Faking It is Not Cool


There is an elderly gentleman who walks by the dog park every day when I’m down there hanging out with Al, Debbie, and whoever else happens to come by. The man is obviously blind, and he walks with the assistance of a beautiful Golden Retriever. I always have mixed feelings when I see them together – first of all, admiration for the dog who is so devoted to his human that he doesn’t even turn his head toward the cacophony of the dog park – he just does his job.  I also feel a little wistful, though, wishing that the man and his dog could come into the park and have fun with the rest of us.

Debbie had another perspective. She commented, “That guy can take his dog anywhere – shopping, on the bus, eating out – I sure wish I could do that with Chuck. It would make life a lot easier. Maybe I should just get Chuck a harness and fake it.”

Debbie is a Ditz

Okay, let’s get one thing straight to start with – I love Debbie to death. She’s a good friend, both in and out of the dog park. But sometimes she can be such a ditz. I’ve even been known to tell her from time to time, “Debbie, you’re a ditz.”

I guess I kind of went off on her. But I treated her to low-fat frozen yogurt later on (she and Chuck are both trying to lose weight) and we’re cool. As we were enjoying our yogurts, I told her exactly what had set me off. To my way of thinking, she might as well have been saying “Wouldn’t it be great to be blind? That guy’s got a sweet life!”

Later on, I started wondering about people we see in public with service dogs. Are all those people genuinely disabled? Or could some of them actually be doing what Debbie suggested in a not-all-that-serious way – faking it so they can take their dogs everywhere with them?

I suppose it’s likely that some are feigning disabilities, and that their dogs are not really service dogs. So, let’s take a look at 7 essential facts about service dogs, and why faking is harmful.

1. Service Dog Handlers are Disabled

There are laws in place when it comes to service dogs, and they are there for good reasons. They’re not just guidelines. And when a person decides to falsely represent their pet as a service dog, they’re doing wrong, not just legally, but morally. They’re also being insensitive and disrespectful, because they fail to understand the multitude of problems faced by a person who genuinely needs a service dog.

Going back to what Debbie said, it almost sounded like she was wishing for a disability, and not taking that gentleman’s blindness seriously. When you wish for the right to own a service dog, or represent your own dog as one, that’s pretty much what you’re doing. How many times have you said any of the following to yourself?

  • I’d love to be blind.
  • I wish I were deaf.
  • It would be so cool to be diabetic, and maybe get to fall into a life-threatening coma if my sugars go out of whack.
  • Balance issues are so fun! You just never know when you’re going to keel over, and breaking a bone would be a bonus!
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have unpredictable panic attacks? I just love surprises!
  • Bob has seizures – man, Bob is so lucky!
  • If only I had PTSD, I could take my dog everywhere with me.
  • My dog wouldn’t have to fly in cargo if I could convince the airline that I’d totally lose it if he weren’t with me in the cabin.

Unless you’re an unspeakable moron, I’m thinking that you’ve never said, or thought, any of those things. Certainly I haven’t. But if you’ve ever said, “I wish my dog could be a service dog,” or worse, asked yourself how you could get your dog qualified a service dog so he could accompany you everywhere, you deserve a good whack upside the head from anyone who really does need a service dog.

If you’re asking yourself how to get your dog qualified as a service dog, and you’re not genuinely disabled, you’re going to be disappointed.  You have to have a permanent disability, and your dog has to be fully trained as a service dog. No amount of equipment, no special harness, no ID card, no nothing is going to make your dog into a service dog. Saying it doesn’t make it so, and saying it when it isn’t so is illegal. Not to mention, as I have already said, immoral and disrespectful to people who genuinely do have disabilities and need the assistance of a service dog.

One of the most blatant examples of someone using the “service dog” argument as a way of having her pet in a place where it would normally be prohibited occurred in June of 2014, when Ivana Trump entered an upscale restaurant in New York City with here ill-mannered Yorkie, Tiger. Nearby patrons were outraged, claiming that having Tiger in close proximity ruined their dining experience. The Donald’s ex was reportedly allowing Tiger to run rampant, even letting him get up on the table to be fed treats. Ivana claimed that Tiger was actually a “certified comfort dog,” there to ease her anxiety. For sure Tiger wasn’t easing anyone else’s anxiety.

So, was Ivana faking? Were the supposed credentials she flashed to back up her claim as phony as her hair color? Most likely. For sure Tiger’s behavior wasn’t consistent with that of any of the usual standards for service dogs. Just MHO, of course, but this sounds like a woman with a perception of entitlement who faked it to get what she wanted, and was, therefore, highly disrespectful to people who have real anxiety disorders that might require them to be accompanied by a “comfort dog.”

2. Service Dog Handlers are Often Judged

Now that I’m done judging Ivana, let me tell you that often people who really do need service dogs are often judged, and not just by the public – sometimes by other service dog handlers. Even though the law clearly states that anyone who has a disability that requires the use of service dog has the right to have their dog in any and all public areas, people are often questioned, sometimes in ways that go beyond rude. “Show me the papers!” they demand. “You don’t look disabled, so what’s the matter with you?” “Must be nice to be able to take your dog everywhere!” “I’m diabetic, what’s your excuse?”

When people who legitimately need service dogs are being judged by the general public, other service dog handlers, and sometimes even their own family members, adding “fake” service dogs into the mix just makes matters worse.

Perhaps you have seen people canvassing at your local mall or other venue. People who have service dogs lying by their sides, and a donation box on the table. “It’s okay to pet him if you want to,” they tell you, “He’s not working right now.” So you smile, pet the dog who politely but aloofly receives your attention, and leave a donation. You feel good about what you’ve done, and you should – you’ve helped a worthy cause.

Now, picture yourself in a restaurant with Ivana Trump and her little yap-box. It’s a whole different thing.  Dogs that are behaving badly in public are not service dogs, no matter what kind of ID the owner wants to throw at you. And the sad thing is, some people will actually believe that badly behaved dogs are service dogs, because hey, the paperwork looks good. Then, they view legitimate service dogs with suspicion, and judge them unfairly.

3. Service Dog Handlers Cannot Manage Without Their Dogs

A dog that is not performing a service is just that – a dog. Nothing more. A service dog is a valuable companion, and an indispensable aide to a person who has a disability. The dog is essential when it comes to ensuring that the person can function in ways that they would be unable to without the dog. The dog is not just a companion – he has certain duties that he completes in order to reduce the effect of the disability and allow the handler to function. If your dog is not doing that for you, then he is not a service dog, and under the law, you may not represent him as such.

Going back to Ivana, there is a difference between a service dog and an emotional support, or therapy, dog. I’m not here to decide whether that’s right or wrong, but I’ll talk about it a bit more later on. The law is clear, though – an emotional support, or “comfort” dog is not a service dog, and his or her owner does not have the same rights. Ivana’s Yorkie, in short, had no right to be in that restaurant, and no business being on the table.

4. It Takes Hundreds of Hours to Train a Service Dog

Actually, that might not be totally accurate. It takes hundreds of hours if the dog is the canine equivalent of a rocket scientist, and sometimes thousands if he isn’t. A service dog needs much more than basic obedience training – he also needs weeks of socialization training, and training in specific tasks. So if you’re thinking “My Harley is so smart, he could be a service dog,” think again. Most dogs simply aren’t up to it. And in addition to the training involved, a service dog also has to have incredible focus and an almost supernatural temperament. Even the smartest pet hardly ever is going to make it as a service dog, no matter how much training he undergoes – you could think of a well-trained pet as being your average to above-average high school grad, and your service dog as being a PhD candidate. That’s a huge gap, isn’t it?

So, if you’re thinking “I can put a vest on him and he’ll pass,” stop right there. Don’t even consider it. Not only are you doing an unbelievably stupid thing, you’re devaluing all the hard work and the exceptional ability that is needed to make a genuine service dog.

5. Phony Service Dogs do Harm to the Reputation of Real Service Dogs

By now you probably think I really have something against Ivana Trump. I don’t – The Donald did her dirt back in the day, and she seems to be a very nice, gracious woman (at least when she’s not accompanied by 6-pound hairy horrors). But she made news with her supposed service dog. And every time someone like that makes news, it causes people to question the worth of service dogs in general. People who maybe never even thought much about service dogs one way or the other will view the next one they see with suspicion. Is the dog really a service dog? Is the owner really unable to function without the dog? Or is this just another person with a sense of entitlement who thinks she should be able to let her dog be wherever it wants and do whatever it wants?

Every time one of these stories comes to light, it casts a negative shadow on all service dogs.

6. Service Dogs are Doing Real Work

With real service dogs, problems can occur when members of the general public fail to make the distinction between a pet and a working dog. That day at the dog park, Debbie was seeing a man out for a walk with his pet – not a person being accompanied by a highly-trained assistant – and that’s why she reacted the way she did.

You could tell by looking at this man and his dog that the dog was working. The dog wasn’t distracted, and he obviously knew that he had a job to do. I started wondering later, what if this service dog had been distracted by an imposter? A dog that was just masquerading as a service dog under the direction of his owner? The service dog could have been distracted, and the man could have ended up being harmed. So before you think about taking your dog out incognito as a “service dog,” you should know that if something like that occurs, you could be charged with a crime.

7. Well Meaning People Can Do the Most Harm

When I started researching this topic, I was shocked by how many reports of fake service dogs were available – most of them within days of each other. It reminded me of that old shampoo commercial that goes, ‘You tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on…” One media outlet would pick up on a story, and then another would pick it up, and not much later, you’d think that fake service dogs were an absolute epidemic. And of course social media doesn’t help either – we share, our friends share, their friends share, and so on, and so on.

Fake service dogs really are not everywhere. The problem is that just one fake can be reported, and over-reported to the point where everyone looks with suspicion on service dogs. Yes, people with fake service dogs are a problem. But they’re easily identified. This is one case where actions really do speak louder than words – if it doesn’t behave like a service dog, probably it isn’t a service dog.

So, now that we’ve talked about seven important facts about service dogs, how do you identify the fakes?

When is a “Service Dog” Not a Service Dog?

Phony service dogs are usually pretty easy to spot. You might think that if a dog has no documentation, ID, special harness or vest, then he is not a service dog, but the fact is that none of these things are required under the law.

Usually, you will be able to spot a fake simply by observing his behavior. If you see a service dog in a place that sells food, lodging or entertainment, if he is a real service dog, he is entitled to be there, and he will behave politely. A fake service dog will be acting like a typical pet – he will probably be easily distracted, and may engage in behaviors like growling, barking, begging, stealing food, jumping and knocking people over, or other objectionable activities.

Simply stated, if a dog is being disruptive in public, chances are that he is not a true service dog. Someone who is operating a business is required by law to admit genuine service dogs onto the premises, but is in no way required to suffer the presence of an ill-mannered animal who is almost certainly not a service dog. Service dogs are easily identified because they have good manners, are well-trained, calm, and focused on their handler to the exclusion of everything else.


There are numerous different kinds of disabilities, and you can’t identify all of them by sight alone. Sure, a person wearing dark glasses and walking with a dog in harness is likely blind, but people who suffer from diabetes, seizure disorders, or PTSD, just to name a few conditions, are not identifiable by sight alone. So don’t assume, just because you can’t see the disability, it doesn’t exist. Many people who have hidden disabilities face censure from the public, and that’s unfair. Service dogs help with a huge range of disabilities, both apparent and not so apparent, and by doing so they allow their handlers to fully participate in society.

So, what is a service dog? It’s simple. A service dog performs specific tasks that their person would otherwise not be able to complete, and works in partnership with someone who has a disability. That’s really all there is to it. Vests, harnesses and IDs do not make a service dog. And a dog is not a service dog unless he is accompanied by a person who has a legitimate disability. So if you’re thinking about keeping your dog out of the cargo hold of an airplane by claiming that he is a service dog, or taking him into a restaurant on the premise that he is a ‘comfort animal,” think again. It’s just not cool, and you’re not “da man” because you got one over on the general public.

It’s a pretty easy message, here. Don’t fake it. Don’t devalue a person’s disability by thinking it’s fun or cool to pretend your dog is a service animal. Sure, it might be nice to take your dog everywhere with you, but if you’re faking, then you’re just making a mockery of people who really have disabilities, and also of the dogs that work so tirelessly to help them live with those disabilities. And please, remember that words can hurt – if you say to a person who has a disability, “It must be nice to be able to take your dog everywhere,” then you are essentially making light of the struggles that they have to go through every day.  If you do that, you’re either a ditz like Debbie, or worse, a self-entitled ass. You pick.