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Is It Terrible to Put a Fake Service Vest on Your Dog?

Cheap vests and strict ADA laws are emboldening pet owners to bring their untrained dogs wherever they damn please

Becoming a service dog is hard work. The vast majority don’t make the cut, most often because they contain some of the personality traits that make dogs so goshdarn lovable: friendliness, curiosity, pet-ability, etc. 

While service dogs might have all these features, too, they manage to suppress them. That’s why they’re service animals –– they can put aside their inherent dogginess to ensure that their owner doesn’t fall into a seizure and hit their head, or that their owner doesn’t step in front of a moving vehicle. Their job is to be alert to their owner’s needs essentially at all times. That’s why service dogs are allowed in establishments that your family dog probably isn’t: Of all the good bois, they are, objectively, the goodest.

But not everyone is satisfied to live by these rules. And so, they purchase a dog harness off Amazon with a “service animal” patch for less than $20, and bring their untrained pet with them wherever they please.

They’re not shy about it, either: In reviews for various products designed for legitimate service animals, there’s plenty of evidence of this practice. “Mainly got this because I was constantly being denied entry to places,” wrote one reviewer in February 2019. “You would think a tiny dog would not cause such a storm. But like MAGIC this purchase turned dog haters into dog tolerates [sic]. All I have to do is put this on my dog, hang her multi-colored dog tags on the ring to look official, and she’s in… If you are asked what service a dog so small performs, say public training for various hospital patients with mobility issues.”

Businesses are required to allow service animals (which can only be dogs and, surprisingly, miniature ponies) as part of the Americans With Disabilities Act. They’re welcome, however, to prohibit any other type of animal. This may partially be to help keep an establishment clean and calm, but it’s also for the safety of the service animal and its owner: Other dogs can be a distraction to a working dog, which puts the owners at risk. 

A clear distinction to be made here is that service dogs and emotional-support animals aren’t the same thing. Any animal can be registered as an emotional-support animal, and it’s a relatively simple process. Service animals, however, must undergo rigorous training, usually specific to the varying needs of disabled people. Guide dogs, for example, are trained to assist deaf and blind people in navigation. Some dogs are trained to help people with physical disabilities complete tasks by fetching items, or even assisting in balance and stability. Others are trained to sense oncoming medical emergencies, like seizures. 

Emotional-support animals, on the other hand, typically aren’t trained in any specific way — they simply provide emotional support by nature of being a pet. Some service animals provide emotional support as well, and can assist in psychological issues like PTSD or schizophrenia with tasks like stopping repetitive behaviors or entering a room before their owner, but again, this requires specialized training.

Because the purposes of a service dog can be personal and intimate information, though, businesses are only allowed to ask two specific questions in regards to a service animal’s presence: “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” per the ADA website. Staff aren’t allowed to seek documentation, ask about the nature of the disability or request that the dog demonstrate its abilities. Further, hotels and airlines must waive any pet fees for service animals.

While these stipulations are well-intentioned — they exist to protect disabled peoples’ privacy and maintain their rights — they have unfortunately emboldened some people to fake it just so they can take their dog to brunch. Considering there’s no way to prove the validity of the dog’s status, it’s a relatively easy lie to pull off: All you’ve gotta do is buy a harness online and nobody will question you. 

It should be noted that most of the reviewers on Amazon seem to be using the harnesses for genuine purposes, or are removing the “Service Animal” patch the item comes with (the harness comes with a number of Velcro patches to label the pet, including “Do Not Pet,” “Emotional Support Animal” or “Service Animal In Training”). But again, it’s easy enough to find the assholes, too. In another Amazon review, a guy wrote, “It allowed us to take our furry son everywhere, including in my hospital room when I had a baby. We later got the letter to make him an official service dog, but the vest alone did wonders everywhere we took him.”

In 21 states, there are legal consequences for such falsification. As such, in California, someone caught impersonating ownership of a service animal can be fined up to $1,000 or face six months in prison. Because of said restrictions surrounding asking about a service animal, though, getting caught seems unlikely. 

Beyond the ethical quandary of lying about one’s disability, there are other consequences to faking a service animal. A true service animal isn’t to be petted by strangers, as it’s a distraction — if a false service dog is allowed to be petted, this might make people (children, in particular) think petting all service animals is acceptable.

“The issue is that people lack the common sense to understand when their animal isn’t trained to be in a public place,” says Mark, 29, in New Jersey. “I have a service animal who is well-trained and is great in public spaces, but people think that they can just bring their yappy dog into a grocery store and it’s cool because they bought a vest on Amazon. That shit is uncool but also just irresponsible and selfish. If people had the common sense to know that their dog wouldn’t be good in a grocery store, then I think a lot more public places would let animals into them with or without a service animal vest.”

Bringing non-service dogs into environments where they aren’t permitted can be dangerous for others, too. For instance, my brother has frequent seizures and is in a wheelchair. The seizures are most often triggered by unexpected noise or touching, and a loud bark or a dog jumping onto his lap have caused him to have seizures in the past. Because of that, big dogs, in particular, can be extremely frightening to him. Of course, he expects that dogs might be in certain environments like parks or out for walks, but in a setting like a mall or a restaurant, an untrained dog could potentially ruin his day. 

Presumably, the “tiny dog” mentioned by the first Amazon reviewer likely wouldn’t bother my brother much. And in many cases, fake service dogs probably aren’t hurting anyone. Until, of course, more and more people think it’s acceptable — eventually, then, there will be a lot more situations like these: