Pseudo-Assistance Dogs Jeopardize Hard-won Rights for Real Service Animals

February 28, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs 
no dogs allowed

I saw a news item the other day in the New York Post about Hollywood celebrity Candy Spelling (mother of Tori and widow of TV producer Aaron) bringing her dog, Madison, a Wheaton Terrier, into a New York restaurant wearing a “service dog jacket.”

Is this dog really trained and certified as some type of assistance dog? I really have no way of knowing, but hearing about this incident just reminded me of how more and more I’ve been hearing about people trying to pass off pets as assistance animals.

I’ve even had friends ask to borrow my assistance dog’s backpack so they might be able to bring their pet to some event or into some business. I’ve always said, “Sorry, but no.”

It’s an image and reputation thing. If your pet has not gone through the rigorous training that “real” assistance dogs must obtain, he or she probably won’t be able to behave well enough in public. It’s hard for us who really rely on our assistance animals to condone your desire to have your pet with you everywhere. No matter how much you love them, you really don’t require them the way we do.

For over 75 years, Assistance Dogs have worked successfully in public and won the public’s acceptance by achieving high behavioral and training standards, which set them apart from pets and other animals. Assistance Dogs International, Inc. publishes minimum standards for assistance dog training programs to ensure the highest level of quality in assistance dog performance.

An ill-behaved “pretend” assistance dog gives all the real ones a bad reputation. If there are any incidents, it just makes people feel justified in denying access to a dog in the future, whether it is truly a trained assistance animal or not.

But it’s hard to know which dogs are “real” and which aren’t. If a business owner or someone else suspects that a dog is not really an assistance dog, but just a pet, what are they to do?

Not all people with disabilities are easy to visually identify. It’s not always people with guide dogs out there or those of us in wheelchairs these days. Think about the military veterans with PTSD and their dogs. Or those with hearing loss or autism. Can you tell if the man, woman or child with the dog is truly disabled and if their dog is truly an assistance animal?

What if a business owner confronts someone and they’re wrong? Or what if the customer makes a scene, even if their dog is really a pampered pet. Is the customer always right, no matter what?

People can train their own dogs, too, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, so who certifies or decides which assistance dogs are genuine and which are fakes?

Here’s my fear: Passing your pet off as an assistance dog not only gives the real ones a bad image, it might jeopardize the hard-won rights of people who really need assistance dogs. If there are enough bad incidents, will someone try to enact legislation changing the access laws?

I remember back in the early 90s, three years after the ADA was enacted, when I got my first service dog, Ramona. I was stopped a lot and told things like, “You can’t bring that dog in here.” Nowadays I feel more confident traveling in my state and across the US, but I don’t want things to revert back due to the issue of pseudo assistance dogs.

This is a very real issue that I feel really needs to be discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s an article on the topic that just came out on Disability Scoop and another article from the Wall St. Journal. We discuss assistance dog standards in our book Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook.


12 Responses to “Pseudo-Assistance Dogs Jeopardize Hard-won Rights for Real Service Animals”

  1. Pam Allen on March 10th, 2011 2:54 pm

    We have plans to get a puppy and train our own service dog and it is scary to think that our puppy’s misbehavior might jeopardize her future career and the careers of all the other dogs who already serve in service capacities. However I can think of no way to train a dog to sit nicely on a Max train (Subway type transport) without actually taking her there and training her to ignore the other passengers and service animals on the train.

    When we first started this process we searched online and found out that there is no “Real” service dog registry. There are a lot of companies charging up to 200. for a card and a number that means nothing legally because you can take the dog anywhere even if you don’t have it.

    I think there should be a basic obedience test that service dogs in training should have to pass and they should be certified as a service dog in training, then once they are trained they should have a real registry that shows that dog has completed the training for whatever they are needed to do.

    Then they need to have their card in their little backpack and it should have their picture on it and the picture of the person who is supposed to be handling them.

    That would stop all these pseudo service dogs and also allow for those of us who need to be able to train.

    Just my opinion.

  2. Deb Davis on March 28th, 2011 3:02 pm

    As a 16-year + employee of a national non-profit organization that trains Service Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Seizure Response Dogs and Service Dogs for Children with Autism, I have seen the progression of the Assistance Dog industry, as well as the public’s progression of acceptance of these outstanding dogs.

    Being that the ADA, even in all of its wisdom and March 15 changes, is so vague, it leaves the term ‘service dog’ up for interpretation. Twenty years ago, as Marcie mentions, business owners were protective and downright ignorant of the law about access for Service Dogs. Now, because of the abundance of Service Dogs in the past 10 years, business owners are cautious, yet accepting because they live in fear of a civil rights violation if they deny access to a person with a Service Dog. This ‘fear’ and ‘vagueness’ has forced society to become educated about Service Dogs in a not-so-correct manner, thereby leading to another level of ignorance.

    With all due respect, in my 16+ years of travel with this agency, I have yet to encounter a self-trained Service Dog that is as well-mannered, well-trained and highly-skilled as a Service Dog that was trained by professional organizations. I hear things all the time about professional organizations ‘costing money’, either for training or travel to their sites…about a person wanting to know their dog since puppyhood, so that’s why they decided to train their own…about wanting to ‘take my dog wherever I go, so I’m going to ‘say’ it’s a Service Dog’…again, with all due respect to those who are reading this who either have a self-trained dog or are training one, quality should be your absolute number one concern. Quality in the type of dog that’s trained for you, quality in the temperament of dog that is trained for you, quality in the training techniques that are used on your Service Dog.

    When I hear someone is training their own Service Dog, I think of a few things: 1) what are your credentials for dog training? Training a Service Dog is more than just buying a few books and watching a few videos. I know that I will be challenged on that statement; however, again, with 16 years of experience in the industry, I still stand by that statement. And, please know, I am NOT a dog trainer. 2) Would you consider performing your own medical surgery as well? I equate the specialized knowledge, care and consideration of evaluating and training a service animal with the expertise, knowledge and skill of a surgeon. A diagnosis can be one thing on paper or film, as can a dog ‘seem’ to be of a certain temperament initially; however, when the surgeon gets inside and sees things from a different perspective, he needs to have the expertise, experience and confidence to change courses on that surgery ‘on the fly’; same with a dog trainer. A dog can seem manageable in many situations; however, when a new situation arises and a new behavior arises, are you knowledgeable, experiences and possess the expertise to correctly handle that changing course ‘on the fly’? I wouldn’t put my life in the hands of someone who had only ‘read the book’ about my surgery…

    Personally, I echo Marcie’s fears of ‘one bad dog bone ruining the box’. Too many people have educated the general public and lawmakers for too long about the incredible benefits of well-trained, quality Assistance Dogs in order to lose access rights because of ill-mannered dogs.

    Please leave the dog training to the experts, so that you will receive the best Service Dog to fit your needs~

  3. Sharon Wachsler on April 5th, 2011 1:27 am

    Hi Deb,

    I’ve been partnering with assistance dogs since 1999. Considering your 16 years in the field, I’m surprised by some of the things you say.

    It seems as if you are not aware that many people who train their own SDs are, in fact, professional trainers. Sue Ailsby is one. You’d be hard-put to find a more experienced trainer in the world, having trained dogs for conformation, agility, herding, sledding, obedience, and just about everything else, as well as her own SDs.

    Debi Davis (whom I was thinking you were for a moment), has also been training dogs forever, and trains her own assistance dogs. Barbara Handelman, Joan Frohling — surely you know these names?

    I agree with you that not everyone who owner-trains is up to the standard that they should be. However, lumping owner-trainers with fakers is really muddying the waters. My service dogs have been hugely important to my quality of life, independence, and safety, and people always have responded with surprise that I trained them myself. I have never had anyone think my SD was not trained properly.

    Your comment also makes another big assumption that is very problematic: That all people with disabilities can get a SD through a program. We can’t. One of my friends is deaf-blind and mobility impaired. She waited for years to get a dog from one of the big SD training programs before she finally gave up. She just wanted a hearing dog who would work with her in a wheelchair. They kept saying they would get back to her, but in the end, couldn’t do it. Now she has trained two combo dogs for herself (guide/hearing/service) in the intervening 13 years.

    I have multiple disabilities, including MCS. I found one program in the country that seemed like it might fit my needs and accommodate my disabilities — your program/employer. I applied and was denied, because, I was told, the field trainer couldn’t be expected to accommodate my disabilities.

    My choices, then, were no SD or train my own. Are you a service-dog partner yourself? Have you ever had to make this decision? It was not one I took lightly. I tried to find a trainer, but nobody wanted to take it on. They all said they didn’t know how to train SDs. They did obedience; they didn’t know how to train service skills and they didn’t want to experiment.

    Working in the disability field and having a disability yourself give you very different perspectives. I know this because I worked at an agency that served people with disabilities before I became disabled, myself. It’s a whole different world.

    One reason that some people choose not to work with a program is the patronizing attitude that is historically connected to treatment of people with disabilities. The idea that nondisabled people know what we need better than we do. People with disabilities have endured a lot of things, from rudeness and humiliation to human-right’s abuses, under the rubric of “for our own good.” That is something to consider when you speak publicly about people with disabilities, as a representative of an organization that serves people with disabilities.

    I agree that fraud is an increasingly common problem, but blaming handlers who owner-train is not the solution.

  4. Grace on April 22nd, 2011 1:29 am

    Ok first off Deb there is a HUGE difference between a person who LIES to get their dog into a restaurant and a legitimate person with disabilities partnered with an owner trained service dog! With all due respect have you ever even attempted to connect with an OT group? You would quickly find a group of individuals with training standards equal to or greater than professional organizations who are just as concerned about the quality of their dog’s temperament, training, and working ability. These are individuals who are fierce advocates for the service dog community and despise liars and fakers just as much as any school. You do not show anyone respect when you blanket an entire demographic under such a prejudice stereotype.

    Owner training is often more expensive than the cost of a school trained dog. It is not simply picking out a mutt, flipping through a training book, and dragging the dog along on outings. It is an intensive, long, difficult, and sometimes frustrating process which takes years and more often than not involves a lot of help from a professional dog trainer. Most OTs hold themselves to the same strict standards of the ADI and strive to present a positive professional image of a handler team to their community.

    If there were SD “experts” for every disability field I doubt OTing would be as common. But the plain and simple fact is that if organizations refuse to help people with (laughably termed) “non-physical” disabilities OTing is going to exist and is going to be vitally necessary to exist. Your organization only trains autism SDs for children, as most autism SD schools do, but what about when those children grow up? Does their autism suddenly disappear at adulthood? Many PSD schools only provide dogs to veterans. What about first responders who witness atrocious acts on US soil, what about the abuse victims who suffered those atrocious acts first hand? And what about persons with rare medical conditions where finding a dog that alerts is like finding a straw in a haystack that suddenly turns gold. So what are persons to do when no school will even consider their “needs”?

    Quality does indeed matter but quality is not binary, it is not a yes or no answer, and being trained at a school is not a guarantee of quality. I have met SDs from professional organizations that my OT SD could outshine in manners or skill, yet I do not discount all professional organizations as inferior or flawed. And I have met fakers and persons with poorly trained OT SDs yet they do not represent the entirety of those who choose to OT.

    I would encourage you to get in contact with an OT SD group so that the grossly incorrect information you have can be disproved and replaced with a new respect and understanding of the vast diversity of disabled owner trainers and how their very professional, well behaved dogs help them where an organization couldn’t.

  5. Martha on April 23rd, 2011 10:07 am

    I have an owner trained service dog, and I can guarantee you that you would never know that he wasn’t trained by a “professional service dog organization.” I have also seen program dogs that were not near as well behaved as my service dog. That’s in large part because the training doesn’t end at the program and it has to be continued by the handler. Most disabled owner trainers, hold themselves and their dogs to a very high standard.

    I’m not a dog trainer, so how did I do it? I hired one. I still did the vast majority of the hands on training and she didn’t see him in public until he was completely trained because, in my state, I have public access rights. But, she evaluated him, taught me skills, and answered my questions. Now, my service dog was 4 years old before we entered the service dog world. He had a strong obedience back ground, we had an incredible bond. With the next one, starting with puppy hood, she will have a much larger role in training.

    As for reasons to owner train, there are a ton of them. One is that you can’t teach a dog how to alert to neurological conditions. Programs train medical response dogs, but no reputable program will promise a medical alert dog for anything other than diabetes. So, if one has a pet dog that alerts, then there is a great reason. Also, I have friends with program dogs that have a hard time bonding with their dog. With service dogs, that’s vital.

    There is no hard and fast one right way to train a service dog, but to blame OT for the problems is down right wrong. Fakers are the problem, not legitimate owner trainers!

  6. […] there is already enough judgement, discrimination, and ignorance facing owner-trainers (e.g., this assistance-dog blog and comment that lumps in partner-trained SDs with fake SDs); admitting that we and our dogs are not perfect and that we have doubts can therefore feel […]

  7. Andrea on April 30th, 2011 12:50 pm

    Ms Davis — I’d love to be able to get a mobility service dog from a program. Unfortunately, every. single. program. I’ve found refuses to place a service dog into a household with pet dogs. I will give up my dogs when someone pries them from my cold, dead hands. And now I’m training my own dog because that was the only way to get one without abandoning my friends. Maybe when programs realize that they don’t actually know what’s best for people with disabilities, including trying to force them to give up their cherished pet dogs, I’ll start agreeing that a program is the best place to get one. Until then, I’ll keep training my own.

  8. Betsy on July 19th, 2011 5:03 am

    I had to get a Physician’s Certification to get a disabled parking permit. When there are certification requirements for Service Dogs, public perceptions will improve.
    I am diagnosed with a rapidly progressing, terminal illness so no legitimate SD program would place a dog with me, (they want a 10 year prognosis)
    So, I was almost scammed by a “SD Trainer” for $15k…but luckily discovered the dog was 8yoa & police trained…so my local Kennel Club found a rescue dog with a soft personality. A dog trainer who is also a hospital nurse trains with us weekly in person and calls weekly to problem solve on the phone.
    Every single time I take my SD to a Resturant, a movie, on a plane or to countless appointments, he is complemented as “the best trained SD” they have seen.
    The real miracle is, the SD alerts me before I fall! I ended up on the ground or floor once a week before I got the SD.
    My quality of life has skyrocketed and my husband’s anxiety level is decreased.
    Having a SD is so much work, and I worry I smell like dog treats, but I have a LIFE again!!
    (and as a bonus, no one mistakes my neurological illness for me being drunk)
    My SD could easily pass a test that should only be available to DISABLED PERSONS. The test should include basic obedience, remaining under tables, seats, not engaging strangers, being stepped over by strangers, ignoring other dogs, remaining at stay, coming from dropped leash, and being able to preform at least one task to address the owner disability.
    My SD LOOKS like a valid SD, so I rarely even get a question, but I did undergo 3 humiliating confrontations with people who were upset by “pseudo SD” encounter where the dog’s bad behavior included eliminating, growling, jumping on customers & employees. (all 3 didn’t realize they had the right & I’d add the responsibility to DENY ACCESS to a dangerous or misbehaving dog; even if it was a SD.

  9. Wendi Goodman on August 25th, 2011 5:05 pm

    I’ve been around dog trainers for most of my 52 years. My mother was a renowned writer, trainer and obedience judge and one of the original founders of the Illini Obedience Association. I grew up going to dog shows. I’m intimately familiar with every fairgrounds and 4H grounds in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. I know dogs, I know how to train them and I do it well. What I don’t know how to do is train my own dog to be my service dog. For that, I sought help from a recognized service dog school. The school assisted me with task training.

    As for the “big names” mentioned in a previous comment, they do not impress me. I’ve known Barb Handelman for at least 30 years … maybe longer. I distinctly recall going to dinner with her and Diane Baumann and several others one night. Not wanting to leave their dogs in the hotel, the two women donned dark glasses, put braces on their dogs, and feigned blindness so they could take their dogs to the restaurant with us. I was horrified by their actions. Now that I have a real need for a service dog (I am a disabled Veteran with PTSD and mobility issues), when I think back on that dinner, I am overcome with disgust.

    You couldn’t GIVE me a book authored by either of those two women. It’s bad enough living with a real disability. But to fake one to take your dog to dinner so you don’t have to leave it in the hotel room? That’s downright despicable.

  10. Ben on October 29th, 2011 8:22 am

    My husband is hearing impaired and misses a lot of what is going on around him, which can be dangerous in a large city. Our Cairn Terrier (15lbs) has, over time, developed a sense of what he needs help with, and she has done this without “formal and expensive training”. When I need to get his attention, she alerts him so he can look at me. When his phone (text message) goes off, she alerts him. She does not alert me when my phone sounds even though we have the same message tone. When we are in public and someone (panhandler or other person) approaches, she alerts him. I don’t know what he will do without her when she passes.
    I know some people take advantage of the service dog situation, but there are other cases too, where dogs have developed a keen sense of what their master needs, without expensive training (that we would not be able to afford).

  11. Sarah harper on February 10th, 2012 5:29 am

    Program-trained dogs are not the only dogs of credible weight. I have trained one dog to be a service dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and twice I have seen her out-shine a program trained dog. She is more flexible to the situation and far better behaved. I am currently training a golden retriever to become my next service dog. I have done all the research behind ADi standards, I keep up with the latest in SD legal requirements, and I am constantly on my toes about my dog’s canine manners. Why do I self-train? First of all, there isn’t a program out there that will train for my disabilities and needs. My dog has gone to hospitals, the ER, nursing homes, schools, and constantly behaves as a service dog should. She’s also an excellent example of an owner-trained dog.

    I have only recently heard about this nonsense snubbing owner-trained dogs, and when I did I was infuriated. The self-righteous, ignorant, biligerent, elitist attitude of these people are among the worst I have seen. They rattle on about organizations like the ADI and say my dog couldn’t hold the standards, when I trained my dogs to. I have witness a mobility dog, trained by a program, freak when encountering situations found only in university classroom, while my dog sits up and watches, gauging the impact of the situation on my disability and adjusting her behavior to help me. She responds to fire-alarms and knows instantly what they mean, and calmly helps me to the fire-escape because I am too busy panicking. She defuses social situations that would otherwise send my abuse-created PTSD running out the nearest airlock and aides me in getting through those panic attacks.

    The first person I heard this idea from was ONCE a hero of mine, someone I looked up to. He wrote the book “Until Tuesday”, and is a celebrity in the community — Luis Carlos Montalvan. Now I speak out against him, because where he was once an advocate is now harmful to those with disabilities. Not all of us could have been in the Service, I wanted to be in the Air Force but my disabilities prevented me. No one will train a service dog for woman that grew up emotionally and mentally abused by her guardians, or was abused by man, neurologically damaged by medication given to her for 16 years, and left with debilitating Panic Disorder, PTSD, Chronic Depression, and other problems. I also live with my sister who has pet dogs, and they won’t train for someone living with dogs. I am also unwilling to ask a dog to work for me and not have a close bond with, my dog has to pretty much always be on duty to help distract me if I panic, or if I get suicidal.

    Can any of these fancy program trained dogs recognize a suicidal moment? My Spaniel can, and my Retriever is quickly learning to. They do everything in their power to distract me and get me to think about something else. They -know- when I turn, and they can smell an anxiety trigger a mile away. At least, it acts like a smell, because they are on guard on the moment my body starts responding to an emotional trigger.

    I have extreme agoraphobia… but I can leave the house now, all because of my owner-trained service dog, who behaves to the highest standard. And they are constantly training, constantly improving.

  12. SD Gal on March 23rd, 2012 4:25 pm

    Plenty of program-trained dogs misbehave when their handler doesn’t keep up the dog’s training, either due to laziness or not having been taught properly.

    Plenty of owner-trained dogs misbehave because of lack of proper training.

    Plenty of fake SDs misbehave, for obvious lack of training.

    Plenty of all these dogs behave well.

    (And some owners misbehave!)

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