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Distinguishing a Fraudulent Service Dog From a Real One

Spotting A Fake Service Dog

There is a growing concern about the use of fraudulent service dogs. Fraudulent service dogs are regular pets, emotional support animals (ESAs), or therapy animals that are fraudulently passed as trained service dogs. This trend directly violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and people who flaunt their regular pets off as bonafide service dogs are knowingly or unknowingly abusing ADA law. So the question is: how can someone know the difference? 

In this post, we will look at how pets posing as service animals are going undetected and the telltale signs of a fraudulent service dog.

How Are Fraudulent Service Dogs Going Undetected?

According to the ADA, there are 2 questions that someone may ask a person with a service dog:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

But the ADA also specifies questions that CANNOT be asked, including;

  1. The nature or extent of a person’s disability
  2. Proof that the animal has been trained, certified, or licensed as a service animal
  3. Require that the animal wear identifying tags or vests 
  4. Ask for the dog to demonstrate its ability to perform tasks or do work

Although these laws are meant to protect people with disabilities and their rights, it also makes it difficult for people to distinguish a real service dog from a fraudulent one. This creates confusion and even leads to abuse of the system. For example, anyone can easily buy official-looking “service dog” vests online and then pass their pet off as a service dog. This type of situation only adds confusion to service dog laws. On top of this, there is no national service dog registry; it simply does not exist. Overall, this makes it hard for people to recognize a fraudulent service dog from a real one.

How to Spot a Fraudulent Service Dog

A service dog vest may help a fake service dog enter a public place, but they usually give themselves away by their untrained behavior.

According to the ADA, “it is training that distinguishes a service animal from other animals…[and] the task that the service animal is trained to do must be directly related to the owner’s disability.”

The fundamental difference between a fake service dog and a legit one is that service dogs are impeccably trained. They have up to 2 years of training that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. They are not only trained to perform tasks and do work that aids in people’s disabilities, but they also go through rigorous socialization and house training. They do not act like ordinary pets while on the job. 

Below is a short list of potential behaviors that fake service dogs may exemplify: 

  • Being carried or wheeled around by an owner
  • Tugging or pulling on a leash or not have a leash at all
  • Vocalizing; whining, barking, growling.
  • Showing any signs of aggression including toward other people or other dogs
  • Biting or nipping at people or other animals
  • Wandering or not staying by the handler's side
  • Begging for or stealing food
  • Not being house trained or marking territory
  • Sniffing people, animals, or objects
  • Biting or damaging property
  • Loses focus or is easily distracted 
  • Easily frightened or looks stressed
  • Does not have a calm demeanor

Of course, there may be some exceptions. For example, if a service dog is trying to alert a handler of an impending panic attack, they may vocalize as part of their training. But for the most part, it will be obvious to spot a fraudulent service dog once you know what signs to look for. This is because service dogs will not act on “regular” dog behaviors while they are working. They are professionals and will act as such.

What to Do When You See a Fraudulent Service Dog

The best way to combat the use of fake service dogs is to educate the public. Knowledge about the harm fraudulent service dogs can cause both handlers and the service dog community could be a powerful tool. But you may also choose to file a report. When you see or suspect that there is someone using a fake service dog, and want to make a report, there are two ways you can do so. You can either call the non-emergency number to the local police or make a report directly to the ADA. You can visit the ADA website here, for access to phone numbers and more information.

Using fake service dogs is an unfortunate but real trend. It is against the law in 31 states, including California, to fraudulently pass a regular pet as a service dog. In California, under Penal Code 565.7 it is a misdemeanor punishable to up to six months in jail and/or up-to a $1,000 fine. People equate the use of a fake service dog to using a fake handicap placard to gain access to parking spaces. It is ethically wrong. The hope is that states will find a way not only to educate the public about this growing problem but to find a way to enforce laws while still preserving the rights of people with disabilities.

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  1. Kingon, Amber “10 Signs That A Service Dog is Actually A Fake” 14 August 2017. Animal Health Foundation
  2. “How Can I Tell If an Animal Is Really a Service Animal and Not Just and Not Just a Pet.” ADA National Network, 11 May 2021
  3. Aaron, Marc. “How Do You Report a Fake Service Dog? (Spot, Catch, Report).” DoggySaurus, 12 Jan. 2021.
  4. Lisa Guerin, J.D. “Penalties for Using a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal Under False Pretenses.”, Nolo, 28 Dec. 2020,

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