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We’ve got two different images of service dog handlers growing in the public eye these days.
The first is of a person with a legitimate disability. They’re usually assumed to have one through a visible cue like a wheelchair. Their dog is well-trained, well-bred, and absolutely crucial to their well-being.
The second image is of someone with a “fake” service dog. The common idea is that they’re perfectly healthy and just want an excuse to bring their pet with them everywhere they go. They ordered a service dog vest online, slapped it on their pooch, and now they’re sitting next to you at a restaurant while their untrained dog begs for your lunch.
But what if we’re forgetting about a third category? The person who has a legitimate need for a service dog but doesn’t have the resources to get one with the background and training of a “real” service dog.
When we criticize service dog impostors in defense of real working dogs, we often forget about this handler. But why does this third category even matter?
Because it’s more common than you might think.
The more people learn about the invaluable work of service dogs, the more they develop good intentions for condemning the fakes.
By definition, a service dog is trained to perform tasks that relate to its handler’s disability, like alerting the handler to an upcoming seizure.
Listening to the common criticisms of fake service dogs, you’d think the problem is simple: Some dog owners are just inconsiderate.
Maybe they don’t know or just don’t care that their actions could distract legitimate working dogs and hurt their reputation.
Some people also confuse laws for service dogs with those for emotional support animals (ESAs). ESAs are allowed in “no pets” housing and commercial airplanes, but not in places like restaurants and doctors’ offices.
And it’s true that some people just want to bring their pets and ESAs to sites where only service dogs are allowed.
Service dogs can be very difficult to obtain, even for those who could benefit from their help.
Before you judge “fake” service dogs, consider this:
1. Many service dogs are specially bred — and unaffordable
Service dogs are often destined to be working dogs from the moment they’re born. Breeders produce special litters and select only the healthiest, most trainable pups for the service dog life — and even most of those don’t complete the training program.
Someone who needs a service dog might have to wait years to get the right one. While they wait, their health could decline as they’re left without a dog to support their needs.
And once the right dog becomes available, it can cost upward of $2,000 or more just to buy the dog. That price doesn’t even include the cost of supplies, care, and training.
2. All service dogs are specially trained — and certification isn’t cheap
For some, it’s possible to get a service dog from a more affordable resource like a local shelter.
But every service dog needs to be trained, and that’s usually not cheap either.
To learn to behave in public and perform tasks for their handler, these dogs can go through hundreds of hours of training. Oftentimes, the training continues throughout their working lives.
This can require working with a special trainer, and depending on what the dog needs to learn, that can cost $20,000 or more.
If you’ve ever seen a fun-loving dog greeting strangers and trying to chase squirrels, then you know there’s a reason why professional training is so expensive.
It’s not easy to get a dog to the point of ignoring all distractions and focusing only on its job with its handler.
In fact, the American Kennel Club estimates that 50 to 70 percent of dogs in training through an organization don’t graduate.
3. For many people, it’s impossible to realistically keep up with all these costs
People can apply to organizations throughout the country to get a service dog. Many organizations have their own breeding and training programs, and some have scholarship programs.
For example, the most common type of scholarship provides funding for disabled veterans. For those who don’t qualify, many organizations encourage applicants to fundraise for the cost of their dog.
And for those who can’t come up with tens of thousands of dollars, a trained service dog is simply not an option.
It’s far too expensive for most people, especially those who have a low or fixed income due to their disability.
4. The most accessible option is the one many people criticize
It’s simple to just say that people should only bring the most well-bred, well-trained service dogs in public. But what does that mean for those who can’t afford that option?
Some people decide to train their service dogs themselves, and many are successful.
However, someone can try their very best to turn a shelter dog into a service dog, and still, without top-tier training, the dog may not always behave perfectly in public.
Some of these dogs might be the ones we judge as “fake” service dogs.
5. You can’t spot a ‘fake’ service dog just by appearance
While you might expect to see a purebred dog with a handler in a wheelchair, there are many disabilities that you can’t see, and many types of dogs suited for service dog work.
With this in mind, it’s often best to give people the benefit of the doubt when they’re not harming anyone.
Trying to figure out if that service dog in the restaurant is a “fake”? Leave it up to the handler and the restaurant staff to work it out if you can.
And if you really want to make a difference for the “real” service dog handlers, then donate to scholarship funds to help provide trained service dogs to more people who can’t afford them.
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Fake service animals have gotten a lot of backlash lately.
Every so often, a story about an unusual or misbehaving assistance animal goes viral — like the one about the emotional support peacock that was blocked from boarding a plane.
Then conversations about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to take their animals in public take off again.
Lawmakers have weighed in on the conversations, too. In 2018, at least 21 states enacted new laws to crack down on people who “misrepresent” their pets as service animals.
Protecting legitimate service dogs and their handlers is a perfectly good reason for the backlash. And of course, we can’t just allow untrained dogs to cause problems, even if their handlers are people with disabilities with good intentions.
But it’s possible to consider the needs of these handlers in our conversations about “fake” service dogs.
Being disturbed by an untrained dog is one thing, but judging a service dog that you suspect is a fake is another. Policing other people’s use of service dogs can also hurt folks with disabilities, as people take it upon themselves to question their validity.
To fully address the problem of “fake” service dogs, we’ve got to keep in mind the expense of service dogs and help create more affordable options for those who need them.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer and advocate for survivors of violence, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She lives with chronic illness and believes in honoring each person’s unique path to healing. Find Maisha on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.