It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane … It’s a Service Dog!

Dear Davi,

Are any U.S. states shortening the leash laws on fake service dogs?

Sherman the German Shepherd


Dear Sherman,

These days, it’s not unusual to see shoppers and diners with their leashed service dogs in stores and restaurants.  These animals are trained to provide their human handlers with all kinds of emotional and medical support. The problem is, some people are passing off pet dogs as service animals. In other words, faking it.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to use a fake service dog. Masquerading pets as service dogs is not only extremely disrespectful, it’s harmful. They can put real service dogs in danger, since these untrained dogs may attack service dogs, which are trained to be submissive. Plus, phony service dogs may exhibit negative behaviors in public, including barking, jumping up on people, and distracting others—AKA dogs being dogs.

A law has been passed in Florida—and a growing number of states—that will make it much harder for folks to get away with registering their dogs as service dogs when they’re not. The jury is still out on how many people in the Sunshine State have actually been charged with violating this new law. Now, businesses are able to ask questions and determine if an animal is really a service dog, but at the same time, it ensures that people with real disabilities are not being incriminated without cause. Those who are caught breaking the law face a hefty fine and up to 60 days in jail.

Being a dog, I do have a modicum of sympathy for the smugglers and poseurs. I would love to be given carte blanche to travel the world with my human or just go to the grocery store from time to time—anywhere you go would be even better if your dog were there, right?

But there’s a simple reason why I don’t have one of those vests: I am not a service dog. And I don’t just mean that it’s wrong to lie—of course it is. But also: I am not trained as a service dog. I’m an 11-pound dachshund who jumps at the sight of a squirrel and whines at the smell of freshly baked cookies. Vying for attention from every passerby, disrupting food service, and generally making a nuisance of myself is not something I should do just because I could probably get away with it. Even worse, if I see a service dog, a real one, I’ll likely be by his side like a shot, wanting to say hello—or bark, and that behavior could distract that service dog, putting the person who needs it in danger.

Case in point: Rules exist for a reason and too many people regard service dog laws more as guidelines than a prosecutable statute when violated. Unless your dog is trained as a service dog, it’s wrong—really wrong, not just mildly illegal, it’s a federal crime. Imposters beware!