Not every dog wearing a vest, walking in public on a leash, and with a laminated ID card is a service dog. And dog owners who pass their pets off as service dogs — and by implication, themselves as disabled, break the law and do harm.
“People don’t realize the impact of their actions when they bring an untrained pet or service dog into public,” said Santa Rosa resident Wallis Brozman, a service dog handler who uses a wheelchair and communicates using American Sign Language (ASL).
“It’s not victimless, and it does hurt legitimate, task-trained service dogs and the people who rely on them for independence,” said Brozman. “Whether they put a vest on the dog or not, bringing an untrained dog into a public place can have consequences for service dogs.”
And for those who depend on them. Brozman has had three service dogs, all provided by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).
The CCI service dog training period is two years. Brozman’s dogs learned to respond to 40 commands and do practical tasks such as open drawers, pick up dropped objects, bring in the mail and pull her wheelchair.
Her third service dog is a yellow lab named Renata, who has been with her for six months. She laboriously retrained Renata’s commands in ASL, plus teaching her an additional 25 to assist with Brozman’s particular disability.
Brozman and Renata were paired up after her second service dog, Mork, was so traumatized by aggressive encounters with other dogs in the community that he could no longer perform his duties.
Mork was on the receiving end of aggression from eight other dogs during the two-and-a-half years that he was with Brozman. An incident on the patio of a restaurant was particularly traumatic.
A border collie was tied to the leg of a wrought iron table. Twice when Brozman and Mork passed by, the dog lunged so aggressively at Mork that he toppled and dragged the table behind him.
Returning from a vacation was the final straw. There were 12 dogs in the airport terminal and four on the flight from New York to California.
“Mork was extremely distraught, and, honestly, so was I,” said Brozman. “When we got home, he started avoiding doing his job because he was fearful even of my retired service dog. It was devastating.”
“I never want another service dog user to experience a loss like mine. Mork had been a lifesaver,” said Brozman. “He made my life full with his Mork from Ork [from the sitcom ‘Mork and Mindy’] antics on days I couldn’t move. Losing him meant losing all of my independence and my buddy.”
CCI reports that 66 percent of recent CCI graduates — the dog handlers also must be trained and graduate — reported having an out-of-control dog interfere with or even bite their assistance dog. Eighty-seven percent encountered a fraudulent or uncontrolled dog in public places where pets are not allowed.
“Misrepresenting a pet as a service dog is against the law and has serious consequences for people with disabilities who rely on trained service dogs for independence,” said Michelle Williams, PR and Marketing Coordinator for CCI, Northwest Region. “Fraudulent service dogs cause confusion around the laws and can pose a serious threat to the safety of working service dogs.”
“When untrained pets posing as service dogs behave badly, people who truly need assistance dogs can face added discrimination and lose access to public places — both violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Williams.
A service dog — sometimes called an assistant dog — is a working dog. The work it is trained to do depends on its owner’s disability. Not all disabilities are apparent or visible.
“[Posing] as a bad representation of a service dog to business owners and managers, can lead them to discriminate against all dogs entering their businesses, not just fake ones,” said Williams. “So people with disabilities who use their service dogs to live more independently face added discrimination in public.”
If a business is uncertain whether a dog is really a service animal, two questions can be asked: “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
“Service dog fraud impacts real people and real, task-trained service dogs,” said Brozman. “The collateral damage is my ability to be safe and independent, and I’m not alone.”