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As Lon Hodge was leaving the Veteran’s Administration, a Chihuahua wearing a service dog vest attacked his service dog, Gander. Fortunately, Hodge pulled the small dog off his large labradoodle before any damage was done.

“The veteran who owned the dog proudly admitted he purchased a vest and laminated credentials online for his Chihuahua,” Hodge said. “By looking at the dog’s behavior, it was clear he wasn’t a true service dog.”

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Spotting the real deal from a fake isn’t that hard. Yet many are still fooled, including me. At a conference I attended on pet care, an adorable West Highland Terrier wearing a vest was sitting quietly next to me on his owner’s lap until a few people tried to pet him. That’s when he snapped. Fortunately, everyone pulled their fingers back in time.

Most people know that they’re not supposed to distract a working dog. However, true working dogs aren’t aggressive even when people approach them out of turn. “Whenever I go to a restaurant, Gander lies on the floor under the table,” Hodge said. “Most people don’t know he’s there. Gander’s not my pet. He’s my service dog.”

Hodge suffers from PTSD, a disability with no visible scars. Gander keeps him calm and is always by his side, which is another way to tell a real service dog from a fake. “The dog needs to be by your side at all times,” Hodge explained.

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Brianne Corbett, vice president of client services and dog operations at Freedom Service Dogs of America, said service dogs help people "live their lives more independently."

“The handler and service dog are in tune with each other," she said. "And while most of us have a special bond with our pets, service dogs are more than pets."

Lon Hodge, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, relies on his service dog Gander.
Photo courtesy of Lon Hodge

Gander was rescued from an animal shelter, which is where Freedom Service Dogs of America get all of their service dogs. Their trainers look for dogs with good temperaments that are over 50 pounds and are between one and two years old. On top of not being aggressive, the dogs have to be strong to help people in wheelchairs and big so they can flip on light switches and open doors.

Since they come from animal shelters they’re a variety of pure and mixed breeds, not German shepherds, Labradors, or golden retrievers—the breeds most people think of as traditional service dogs. Many business owners don’t allow these nontraditional looking service dogs into their establishments; they don’t recognize them as true service dogs.

Add in the fakes, and business owners have more reasons to deny people entry. “Those scams hurt people with legitimate service dogs,” Hodge said.

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Hodge knows firsthand what it feels like to be turned away from a business because someone didn’t think Gander was the real deal. In response, he started a nonprofit called Operation Fetch where he hosts an annual conference educating business leaders, hospitality and food service managers, first responders, service dog handlers, and anyone interested in service dog education and awareness. He’s worked closely with executives at Vantage Hotels and Starbucks.

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“The need for this service is great,” Corbett said. “When you bring a dog into a space that they’re not traditionally meant to be in, problems arise. People and other service dogs can get bit. And the fake service dog can also get hurt. Fakes are not fair to the public, to other dogs, and to the dog itself.”

Freedom Service Dogs train and pair dogs with veterans, children, active military, and other adults with disabilities. Currently they have a waiting list with 50 names on it, a 25% increase in applications over the past five years.

A report from the University of Arizona found that 0.9% of people with disabilities are partnered with service dogs. The most recent data dates back to 1990. Congress found that there were 43 million Americans with disabilities and approximately 387,000 service dogs in the United States. Corbett and Hodge believe that number has grown significantly since then.

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Other nonprofits that either rescue or breed dogs to become working animals have long wait lists for service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs. Many people don't understand the difference between these types of support animals, and the definitions themselves are also murky, making it hard to navigate the system even for people not interested in gaming it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act only defines a service animal as "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability."

Service dog laws vary from state to state. Colorado legislators were the latest state to pass a bill making it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. The bill would impose a fine between $350 and $1,000 for first offenders. Penalties for repeat offenders can reach up to $5,000 with community service work added on.

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The Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University lists all 50 states’ assistance animal laws. These include penalties for those who try to pass their pets off as a legitimate service animal.

As the Daily Beast recently reported, "certifications for 'emotional support animals,' which sometimes sport official-looking vests or patches—have seen increasing acceptance on airplanes and in public spaces, assisting people with emotional issues, but creating confusion over the animals’ official classification."

Daniel Kagan, a Colorado state representative sponsoring Colorado's bill told the Daily Beast that “many of these pets misrepresented as service animals are misbehaving, they’re assaulting other dogs on a regular basis, soiling the supermarket, and posing not only a security issue but a health issue.”

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With so many categories and online stores that sell vests that range in price from $50 to $150, it’s relatively easy to scam the system. Papers that look like a doctor’s note are available too for an additional cost.

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The reasons people who don't fulfill the accepted service dog requirements want to falsely register their pets as service animals are clear enough. With the credential, the dogs are welcomed into countless more businesses and facilities and, perhaps most enticingly, can fly free with their owners when they travel.

Hodge had three stressful incidents with American Airlines. On his last flight, the agent at the check-in desk tried to block them from boarding. When he got to the TSA, an officer stopped him again. “I was starting to have a panic attack,” he said. “A custodian noticed and offered Gander and me some water.”

Finally on the plane, Gander noticed that Hodge was panicking. He got up and put his front paws on Hodge’s chest, which calms him down. The mood was quickly broken when a stewardess yelled, “That dog needs all fours on the floor.”

“We weren’t even moving at that point,” he said.

While Hodge and Gander did reach their destination, another veteran—Jason Haag and his service dog, Axel—were flying American Airlines, too. They were coming home from the Hero Dog of the Year Awards ceremony hosted by American Humane Society, where Axel took top honors. Haag suffers from PTSD. He served multiple tours in Iraq, and thinks Axel, his service dog, saved his life.

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The check-in attendant tried denying them from the flight. Both Haag and Hodge spoke to Jim Palmersheim, the managing director of Veterans Initiatives at American Airlines. Haag was promised amends, American Airlines offered him miles.

In 2014, 222 passengers with service dogs filed complaints against American Airlines. Hodge blames the fake vest industry for a lot of the confusion.

It’s not only people with PTSD or another mental health disability that have been denied access to a business. Ryan Honick has cerebral palsy. He gets around his Washington, DC, neighborhood in a wheelchair and with his dog Pico by his side. Honick got Pico from Canine Companions for Independence.

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Whenever they are out, Pico wears his “working” vest. “It lets people know he’s a working dog,” Honick said. “Still, every once in a while, cabs in my neighborhood will pass by and not stop. Even when I call ahead, if they see Pico, they drive right past me because they don’t want a dog—even a service dog—in their cab.”

Some cab drivers are concerned that dogs will leave hair or make a mess. “These dogs are highly trained and well behaved,” Honick said. “People, for the most part, are well meaning and will come up and ask if they can pet Pico.”

Being petted is just one of the countless distractions and safety issues that service dogs and their handlers face on a regular basis. Unfortunately, people with fake service dogs often don't follow proper protocol, thus giving real service dogs a bad name. The solution is to properly educate businesses on how to spot a service dog and how to work with people who have service dogs.