A quick Google search for “service dog vest” leads to Amazon.ca, where there are dozens of pages of product for sale ranging in price from $20-$40. There are many colours to choose from, not to mention wording options such as “Service Dog” or “Service Dog On Duty” or “Service Dog in Training.”
After a few clicks, a credit card payment and time for shipping, a pet owner is able to turn their dog into what looks like a service animal, giving them potential access to pet-free spaces on airplanes, in hotels and restaurants.
Service animals are often a critical support for people with different disabilities. But fake service animals and their owners are taking advantage of the system, and cause huge issues for people with legitimate needs.
“Every dog is an emotional support animal, but some of them just freelance,” says Thea Trussler, client services coordinator at National Service Dogs of Canada.
Most businesses are unable to tell a fake service dog from a real service animal. As a result, some business owners allow any animals that appear to be service dogs on their premises, while others deny entrance outright, even if it violates the Human Rights Code, Blind Persons’ Rights Act and Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
“In Ontario, there isn’t any government regulations [around fake service animals] at this point, which is the difficulty and why we’re often seeing a lot of it. It’s just too easy,” said Vicki Zettler, program manager at National Service Dogs of Canada.
There are a lot of different reasons why people need service animals, from psychiatric and autism support, to visual and hearing assistance.
A typical service animal requires two-to-three years of professional training. The dogs learn to control barking, biting, and generally don’t react to other animals or people — behaviours that can be seen in improperly trained and fake service animals.
For instance, public schools were allowing inadequately trained emotional support animals in the classroom for children with autism, posing a safety issue for other children, Trussler said.
Fake service animals are a “massive, massive issue” and they have consequences not just for legitimate service dog owners, but for training centres as well, added Trussler.
National Service Dogs trains dogs for children with autism, veterans and first responders who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The animals are trained up to standards set by the Assistance Dogs International organization.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” Zettler said.
To get a legitimate service dog from National Service Dogs, you must get an application, do an interview, and potentially a second interview. You will wait for years before you are able to take your dog home and must complete a full week of training with your animal. Then you have in-home training to ensure everyone feels comfortable and safe out in public.
All of the service dogs have to obtain three particular skills to mitigate their client’s disability. The skills depend on the client, but all service animals are able to respond to prompts that have them stay at a client’s side, apply “deep pressure” with their bodies in order to calm clients, and to “visit” or check-in with their human.
Dogs have to prove their worthiness of being a service dog for two full years before they’re actually placed with the client and go out into public, Zettler said. They must also have a service animal jacket to identify them.
Service dog owners also carry a certification ID card from the training centre and a letter that indicates they’ve passed the criteria to handle the dog.
However, fake certificates can be created with photoshop or purchased online for a small fee, and many businesses don’t know what to look for in the documentation.
“I just encourage people to do their research. And if you’re able to just go on and pay $29.99 for a piece of paper, then what?” said Zettler.