Faking It: Service Dogs at Risk

You see a dog in public. Say, at the mall. This dog has a vest. It maybe even has a certificate. But it’s acting up. That dog is not a service dog, and it’s a real problem for those who do have medically-necessary service dogs.

Trainer and handler Shyann Hilla points out that there is no federal or state certification for service dogs, but only service dogs are allowed public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hilla says, “Service dogs are individually trained for disabilities. Like diabetes, anxiety, wheelchair assistance, so forth.” They are not therapy dogs, for the comfort of multiple people. They are also not emotional support dogs, for the comfort of one person.

Service dogs are picked as puppies for their temperament, then highly-trained for a specific person and their disability. 

Hilla says, “On average when I price a year’s worth of training it’s about $12,000 for that year, and it takes about 2 years. Anywhere from $24,000 to $30,000 for a psychological assistance dog. It’s not just $500, and bang, boom, you’re dog knows sit.”

Hilla and her service dog Hiccup can go practically anywhere, by law. Hilla says, “He’s a medical alert dog, and a mobility assist dog, so he does a lot.” When she gets anxious, Hiccup distracts here. He alerts her when her blood sugar level is about to drop. He can open doors, and lead her back to her car if she’s having a panic attack. Hilla says, “He is my lifeline as well as the support I need to be able to have a comfort setting when I’m out in public.”

CMU student Emily Long says people don’t understand that her service dog Frankenstein is not a pet. He can alert her ten minutes before a migraine headache sets in. Long says, “It actually gets me really upset because living on a college campus, I get a lot of students going, ‘I wish I could have my dog with me.’ And it’s like, no you don’t. I wouldn’t have him if I didn’t need him.”

But people use loopholes to make their emotional support dog, or pet appear to be a service dog. With just a few clicks online, you can bring up any number of websites offering to sell a vest and certificate. For as little as $79, people can fake it.

Hilla says, “It might not seem like it poses a risk, but it does.” Long says Frankenstein has been attacked when people bring in their pets.

Hilla says when people bring their pets into stores and other places, “those dogs could pose a threat of attacking or disrupting Hiccup’s behavior, which can put me at risk.”

And then there’s the stigma untrained dogs and their owners give to trained service dogs and their handlers. Hilla says, “The public perceives ‘oh dogs in public are going act out.’ Businesses the same. ‘Last time we had a dog in here it peed on the aisle.’ Now they assume every dog that comes in is going do that.”

Not every dog can be a service dog, and those who try put others at risk. Hilla says, “As simply and kindly as I can say, just leave your pet at home.”