An Open Letter to Sasha Pfeiffer: Regarding the Proposed “Fake Service Dog” Bill

The march of potentially bad legislation to combat the “fake service dog” problem marches on. I just got a link to this article in the Boston Globe about some proposed legislation. The comments are the usual sort of angry making, although there are some voices of reason in there and some folks commenting who understand the issues to varying degrees. Very clear, however, is that the general public really doesn’t understand the issue very well, nor does the general public understand what our rights are and what rights businesses have.

I probably sound like a broken record (y’all know what that is, right?) at this point, but again, I outline in the email I sent to the author of the article my particular views on this issue. I’ve pasted that email below.

Hi Sasha,

I’d love to comment on the story’s page, but I can’t (I’m not a subscriber, and I live far away).

I am, however, a guide dog user. I’m working my fourth, and the first that I’ve owner trained, i.e. trained myself.

I’d like to address your article. Thanks for writing it and bringing this issue to the forefront. Naturally, I have an opinion or two.

Sadly, I think too many of the proposed laws, and the articles that cover them, have the wrong angle on this issue. Really, it’s in part our fault, but only in part. We’ve done a great job at educating the public to the fact that we, as people with disabilities, are allowed to have our service dogs with us in public places. The language we have traditionally used, however, is a problem, as it places the emphasis, and the right of access, incorrectly on the dog.

You’re a journalist, and words are your bread and butter. You can, I’m sure, spot the difference in these two sentences:

My service dog has the right to be here.

I have the right to have my service dog here.

Far too often, we have used sentences like the former, when we should correctly be saying the latter. It is people with disabilities who have the right to bring a task trained service dog into places where animals are not traditionally allowed, but to which the general public is. The ADA and other laws which have similar but, confusingly, different definitions and requirements, all say, more or less, that a person with a disability has the right to be accompanied by a service dog, individually trained to perform tasks or do work to mitigate a disability. We’ll leave emotional support animals out of it for the moment, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, different regulations, and not at all relevant to discussions of the ADA.

OK, all that said, it means that you are claiming two things when you represent your pet as a service dog:

  • You have a disability.
  • Your dog is trained specifically to mitigate that disability.

If both conditions are not met, you do not have the right to be accompanied by that animal.

Were it true that your dog had the right to be somewhere, the fact of your disability wouldn’t matter: merely training would suffice, most likely. But since the right of access is for the person with a disability, not for the animal, it is the person who is perpetuating the fraud. So the dog isn’t fake, but the training and the disability are.

These laws, therefore, should punish the right things: fraudulently claiming that you have a disability, and fraudulently claiming your dog has had disability mitigating task training. Certainly behavior would be easy to prove for the second claim, which would open up the gate for the first.

But here’s my real point. The laws we already have are adequate. What is not adequate is the exercising of rights by business owners facing badly behaved dogs. Whether a dog is a service dog or not, a business has the right to have the dog removed if it is disruptive, aggressive, etc. The right to be accompanied by a service dog is by no means absolute. If my legitimately trained service dog lunged at and bit a random stranger, a store manager would be well within his rights to require that I take my dog out of the store. However, whether through ignorance or fear, these rights are not being exercised.

I maintain that I, as a law-abiding guide dog user, should not have to bear the burden of other people’s bad behavior. And that’s exactly what a law like this could potentially be making me do. Remember, the fakers have lots of ID and will gladly show it to you. I, as an owner trainer, have no ID, can’t show you one, don’t have to show you one, but my dog’s behavior is as good as any professionally trained dog of similar age and maturity level.

Regarding Proposed (though not yet drafted) legislation to address the problem of “fake” service dogs

Just sent the below to a state legislator’s office who is proposing legislation to address the problem of “fake” service dogs. As usual, they’re calling for the ability to ask for ID’s or certification. Anyway, here are my comments, for what they’re worth. Feel free to use them for your own purposes…


I’ve gotten word that legislation is proposed that would punish those who fraudulently represent a dog as a service dog when it is not one. Thank you, first of all, for addressing this very real problem. It is a problem, and the problem does need to be addressed. However, it needs to be addressed in a way that will not infringe upon the rights of people with disabilities who legitimately use service dogs. As, first, a guide dog user myself, and second, as someone who has recently trained his own guide dog, I have some thoughts and concerns I’d like to share with you.

While well intentioned, I think you may be coming at this issue from the wrong angle. I’d like to establish where the rights and responsibilities lie in this discussion. The right to be accompanied by a trained service animal rightly belongs to the person with a disability. That means that it is the person, not the dog, who is perpetrating fraud in some fashion, either by falsely representing that s/he has a disability, by falsely representing that the dog has been trained to mitigate that disability, or both. The most likely case is “both”.

Having said that, however, since the ADA stipulates that one cannot be questioned as to the nature of his or her disability, there has to be a different test. A certification of the service dog? For one thing, there isn’t one, and creating one would present its own set of problems. (If you want to know what those are, I’d be happy to discuss them, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion, and the problems are many.) Anyway, certification or ID. ID’s are a dime a dozen. Anyone can, and does, get them. The people perpetrating the fraud are most likely to have ID’s and are eager to show them. How, therefore, do you tell the real ones from the fake ones? Certainly the two allowable screening questions in the ADA implementing regulations help: most fakers will be able to answer the first and will either struggle with the second or, at best, won’t be able to give a reasonable answer to it.

The standard, therefore, is and must be behavior. Under that standard, any dog, whether service dog or not, can be removed from a place of business if it is not housebroken, and especially if it isn’t under the handler’s control or is aggressive or disruptive. This has always been the case. However, whether through fear or ignorance, business owners are reluctant to exercise their rights to have such disruptive animals removed for their disruptive behavior. Whether a dog is a legitimate service dog or not, there is no place in a public setting for it if it is disruptive or, especially, if it’s aggressive.

I’d suggest that the laws, first, address behavior of aggressive or disruptive animals. Second, address the fraudulent misrepresentation of disability. If, indeed, someone does not have a disability as defined in the ADA, and if their dog is not adequately trained (something that could easily be proved if it were aggressive or disruptive), that’s where your legislation could step in. Absolutely, give the false representation of disability or of trained status real teeth. As outlined, it seems to me, however, that your proposal would be unenforceable. The litmus test must be, not the presence of an ID or certification, but rather the behavior of the dog in question.

As I mentioned, I have trained my own guide dog. She’s my fourth guide, though only my first that I’ve trained myself. I started her out as a puppy, and I would say that she’s as well trained as any guide dog that came from a training program. How would your proposed legislation affect me? I have no ID for my dog, nor do I believe that I should have to prove that I, a law-abiding citizen, am not breaking the law with my dog, who is very well-behaved and always under my control. Laws should certainly be available to penalize the guilty, but the innocent should not be made to bear the burden of the behavior of the guilty. Conversely, I have met program-trained dogs who have ID’s issued by their schools, who are aggressive, disruptive, and whose training has not been maintained by their handlers. Those dogs would get a pass, and they absolutely should not. I can’t stress this enough: behavior, not ID, should be the litmus test here.

I’d be happy to discuss this with you further if you want or need.