Phony Service Dogs

04/01/2015 08:31 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Nothing drives me crazier than people with phony service dogs. I can't count the times I have been at a well-attended event to find a cute Pekinese decked out in a tiny service dog vest. This "service dog" spends most of the evening barking and nipping at heels when he is placed on the floor. We have become so politically correct that no one wants to say anything to the owner.

Passing a pet off as a service dog is fraud, yet all it takes to make a pet look like a trained assistance animal is buying an easily available vest on the Internet - no questions asked, just send in your money.

But remember this: Impersonating someone with a disability to obtain benefits that don't belong to you is a crime - and it's punishable in many states by fines and jail time. And when untrained pets behave badly, the people who actually need assistance dogs wind up suffering the most. Enough is enough!

Canine Companions for Independence is leading the effort to urge the Department of Justice to crack down on the sale of fake service dog products, and you can sign their letter at This wonderful organization provides highly trained service dogs for free to servicemen and women who have been wounded in combat, as well as men, women and children with disabilities. The dogs take two years to train and learn more than 40 commands.

I was moved by Betsy Alison's story. She is the Head Paralympics Coach of the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry. She has been coaching sailors with disabilities for 17 years accompanied by her dog, Morrow. The interaction between Morrow and her athletes has had a positive impact on the well-being and performance of her team. Morrow provides critical emotional and psychological support for athletes when they are on the road training or competing.

I asked Betsy how she felt about people passing off their pets as service dogs. "It is a shame that people are taking advantage of the privilege of being able to have a trained service animal in public places. Many times it is quite apparent that these dogs are not trained and their behavior is less than admirable. I am often asked to show Morrow's Canine Companion for Independence Public Access Certification Card with its permit number," she said.

Cara Miller, who was born with a profound hearing loss, had her dog Maya by her side as she earned a doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation research centered around deaf identity and attitudes toward hearing dog partnerships. She discovered that many hearing dog partners felt as she did that their hearing dogs were not only a source of safety and security, but also served as a "social lubricant" inviting and facilitating conversations with other people.

Maya passed away and Cara now has an assistance dog named Turf. He helps her with her job in the Office of Diversity and Equity for Students at Gallaudet.

She is troubled by the fact that her right to public access with Turf under the Americans with Disabilities Act is threatened by disruptive behavior of phony service dogs. It lowers the public trust in the legitimacy of the training that she and Turf received to be able to function safely and successfully as a team out in the world. "I believe strongly that as an assistance dog team we are ambassadors at all times not only for Canine Companions for Independence, but for all assistance dog teams that the public might encounter in the near or far future."

These are just two stories. There are countless more about these wonderful dogs who help people with disabilities lead fuller lives. That's why it is imperative that we demand an end to phony service dogs.

Debra Dougherty, Executive Director Canine Companions for Independence Northeast Region, said: "There are an alarming number of Internet companies that sell assistance dog vests and identification to anyone who wants to purchase them. The fake certification allows people to claim their untrained pet dogs are service dogs so they will be permitted inside grocery stores, restaurants and other public places where family pets are otherwise not allowed.

As a result of this fraudulent practice, people with disabilities who have a legitimate need for an assistance dog face added discrimination and are being denied access to public places, which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act."

A great way to hear more wonderful stories about the work of Canine Companions for Independence is to attend their Hearts & Heroes Gala on Thursday, April 16th at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. New York State Comptroller, The Honorable Thomas P. DiNapoli will be the special guest auctioneer and Linda Schmidt from Fox 5 NY is the master of ceremonies. For ticket information visit:

We need to make sure that service dogs continued to be welcomed in all public places and that those who try to pass off a family pet as an assistance dog are punished to the full extent of the law.