Fraudulent Service Dogs

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on the harm of dropping standards for assistance dogs.
Written in: July 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Service dog harnesses for sale

I was just called an ableist on Facebook for expressing my outrage at the on-line sale of service dog harnesses. It could be that I poorly formulated my post, so I am going to try in long form instead.

This is the advert that triggered me. 7 euro for a service dog harness of any size or colour, on Wish.com. It casually popped up on my Facebook feed.

That advert became a sore reminder of how easily you can pass your dog as a service dog.

Fake service dogs: real-life situations

  1. A client shows up to her first basic obedience class at our dog training school in The Hague (OhMyDog!) wearing a service dog vest. The dog couldn’t t sit on command and jumped on every passerby, but it took the bus to our school wearing a Service Dog harness.
  2. A candidate trainer wants to bring his dog to work. I say no (school policy: it gets in the way of business). He unconvincingly mumbled something along the lines of “It is a Service Dog” It wasn’t. The dog just hated staying home alone.
  3. I get a mail titled “aggressive Service Dog” from a family who bought a random dog on Marktplaats (the Dutch equivalent of e-Bay) on the advice of their autistic child’s psychologist. The issue? Growling at the child.
  4. A friend who does not want her dog to travel in the hold when they fly back and forth to the US bought a Service Dog vest. Yes, I gave her a piece of my mind.
  5. A friend who is too scared to walk to her desk because of her colleague’s aggressive ‘Service Dog’
  6. A client who wants people to give their reactive dog space, so who had a Service Dog harness made.
  7. A client who insisted on bringing her barky, stranger-aggressive dog, with her to the office and who, when told this was getting to be a problem, threatened her office manager to have it registered as a Service Dog so they would have to say yes.
  8. etc. etc. etc.

And these are just the ones that come to mind…

Service Dog versus Emotional Support dog

A Service Dog is an animal trained to perform specific assistance tasks. Their behaviour must meet minimum acceptable standards if they circulate in the public arena: house-trained, not cause a noise nuisance, not aggressive, etc.

Emotional Support Dogs provide the following service: emotional support. It can be a beneficial partnership for people suffering from anxiety-related mental health issues, for example. These dogs are not trained to perform specific assistance tasks. Nor do they enjoy anywhere near as much legal protection as Service Dogs.

Service Dog temperament

Service Dogs enjoy more legal protection and wider access because the standards for their behaviour is higher. Much higher than what the average dog can achieve. I haven’t owned a single dog who could be trained into a successful Service Dog.

Can your dog stay focused with a screaming kid, a running cat, a passing skateboarder? Will he freak out with a sudden noise or if a dog gets too close? Can he ‘park’ himself quietly and durably in a restaurant?

Guide dog organizations, THE specialists in service dog training, have been working on genetic selection programs for the ideal temperament and even these are far from 100% successful. Never mind picking a random dog on e-Bay because he looks cute.

Sure rehomed dogs can make successful service dogs if they are temperamentally suited, but a lot of thought needs to go into the selection process.

Service Dog training

Training a reliable Service Dog to proficiency takes hours of training every week, perfected over months, sometimes years.

Service Dog training organisations offer this type of specialist training, but it often costs a bunch. A single dog can be worth twenty thousand euros.

This isn’t affordable to most people, so other formulas exist, like:

  1. Co-trained Service Dogs: A professional organisation & the owner share the burden of training; and
  2. Owner-trained Service Dogs: The owner alone is responsible for the training.

There are huge differences in the training abilities of different individual organisations, so an organisation-trained dog is not a guarantee. Nor are owner-trained Service Dogs guaranteed to be failures.

But the different formulas blur the legitimacy issue further. It’s not as simple as saying only organisation-trained service dogs therefore he is legitimate.

Service Dog legitimacy: what is the legal situation?

As far as I know, you are not allowed to ask for a certificate attesting to the dog’s status (in the US, at least). This is in relation to right to privacy. Nor does a handler have to carry the dog’s papers with them, or have the dog wear an identifying harness.

If you have doubts, I believe you are allowed to ask what the animal is trained to perform. This seems a much bigger invasion of privacy, but maybe that’s just me.

As a business owner, you are also allowed to refuse access if the dog’s behaviour is disruptive or “getting in the way of business”. So, behaviour can be a quick lithmus test of a Service Dog’s legitimacy. It also determines whether your refusing access is illegal discrimination or a reasonable request.

Fraudulent Service Dogs: my outrage

The blurry status situation has opened the door to all sorts of fraudulent claims and abuses.

There is an increasing tendency for demanding access to poorly socialized, badly behaved, and poorly performing dogs by playing the Service Dog card.

What outrages me about this abuse? Handlers of bona fide Service Dogs are increasingly questioned and refused access because of it. People with no visible disability are particularly affected by this.

Slapping a Service Dog harness on a dog willy-nilly is worse than taking a handicapped parking spot. I have so much respect for the legitimacy of Service Dogs that it felt to me as of Wish.com was selling driver’s licenses.

Illustration credits

 

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