We love our fur babies as though they’re our own children, making it heart-wrenchingly difficult to leave them at home while we go to work, school, or the grocery store. A quick search on Amazon can solve all your problems — just type ‘service dog vests’ into the search bar and you’ll have a way to take Fido everywhere you go for just under $20. Finally, you’ll never have to desert your sweet puppy again! Simple, right?
Masquerading your pup as a service dog is immoral, illegal, and incredibly dangerous.
You’re at the doctor’s office, sitting on the cold, hard, plastic chair, breathing in the stark, antiseptic air. Your service dog sits vigilantly but calmly at your foot, as he was trained to, awaiting a command. You stare across the fluorescently lit room to see another dog, dressed similarly in a black and red vest with the words “SERVICE DOG” plastered in white across the side. Before you can even react, the other dog leaps across the room, charging your dog. The service dog you need to live your daily life is hurt, costing you thousands in veterinary bills.
This is the story Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman told a Senate committee back in January, after receiving a call from one of her constituents. Stories like this have revealed the threat of “fake service dogs” to both true service dogs and their handlers. Dawn Alford, a lobbyist with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and a service dog handler, has pushed for a bill that seeks to appoint a committee to clamp down on fake service dogs. However, the solution is not simple. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the law prohibits staff people from requiring medical or training documentation. Although the ADA makes faking a service dog technically illegal, it also makes it extremely easy to get away with, making the crackdown a difficult task.
Not only is faking a service dog dangerous and illegal, but disrespectful to the disabled community. Service dog handlers are often faced with judgment and unwanted attention. A service dog can invite inappropriately prying questions about the handler’s disability or outright skepticism about their need for a service animal. Fake service dogs who, no matter how well-behaved, don’t have the training of a $17,000 service dog, and can be dangerous or distracting to the public, creating a bad name for service dogs. Living with a disability is hard enough without abled people taking advantage of the rights of the disabled for some petty benefits.
I know Fido is adorable and well-behaved and would never hurt a fly. That does not make you disabled. People with physical disabilities don’t have service dogs for company or companionship; they have a physical need for assistance only a specially trained dog can provide. They don’t put vests on their dogs because they’re lonely or feel bad for leaving him behind; they put vests on their dogs so they can live without their disability getting in the way.
You were lucky enough to be born able bodied, so remove the vest from your Amazon basket, take Fido for a walk, and use the $20 to buy him a chew toy, not to impersonate a disabled person.