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Who Let the Dogs Out?

A while back I wrote about the abuse of the generous policy at Walt Disney World to accommodate people with special needs.  It had been widely reported that their system to make these visits enjoyable for people with disabilities was being scammed by people purporting to need assistance but not really.  There were even reports that some people who had found a way – legit or not – to get a disability pass, were renting themselves out as special guides to the park to help people avoid long lines.

Officials at Disney World recently announced they have revamped their special guest  assistance program, due to this  growing abuse.  While I am happy to know they are making the attempt to eliminate these scams, it also saddens me to know that now many people who legitimately benefit from accommodations to enjoy the park will not be able to easily get such assistance.

I’m not sure which is worse – that someone would pretend to have a disability to gain special privileges or the people who make money off their disability by selling themselves as park escorts.   I thought this would be the worst abuse I could imagine for taking advantage of a system that is meant to aid people with disabilities.  That was until this week when I came across this next story –

People are falsely claiming their dogs as service animals so they can take them everywhere they go.  Yes, you just read that right- a growing number of people are masquerading their dogs as service animals, meant to assist people with disabilities.

It seems anyone can sew a vest for a dog, put a patch on it that labels the animal a service animal, and then demand the right to take this dog on shopping excursions, out to restaurants and onto public transportation.  Anyone who claims their dog is a service animal can take it onto an airplane in the main cabin.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes this passing off of an animal as a service dog when it really isn’t,  a minor offense and unfortunately it is one of those laws that is hard to enforce.

Recently I was shopping with my husband and we passed a woman carrying a Chihuahua  in her purse–it was wearing a  vest declaring it a service dog.  This was before I had seen the story on service dog fraud, but I had to wonder aloud to my husband what help this dog could be, or if this woman just couldn’t bear to treat her dog like a dog and leave it at home while she shopped. We have a friend who has a service dog and her dog has dialed 911 more than once to summon medical help.  I can’t picture what a Chihuahua  might be able to do, or able to retrieve, to assist their owner.

A shop owner or the airline clerk is limited in how they can question the status of an animal – they are not allowed to ask for a demonstration of the dog’s abilities.  They may only inquire if the dog is necessary because of a disability but not what disability that might be,  and they may also ask what tasks the dog is trained to perform.

Go ahead and google  “rules for service dogs” and the very first hit will take you to a site that will allow you to register your dog as a service dog for $49.  For $199 they will send you identification cards with your pet’s photo, service dog certificates and even a deluxe service dog vest and dog tags that anyone can put on their family pet and masquerade as a working dog. You buy one of their kits and suddenly your dog can go on vacation with you and stay in that hotel room, eat in that favorite restaurant and even go to Walt Disney World and ride most of the attractions.

Never mind that your dog may not behave, doesn’t understand the rules of engagement in public and generally prefers to sniff the behind of other dogs and hump the leg of your best friend.  If you put a vest on that dog, it can go everywhere you go.   A service dog may only be excluded from a shop if it is uncontrolled or not housebroken.

We all have pets or know of animals that are cute and loveable, but that doesn’t make them suited to function in public in crowded or strange environments.  Service dogs are highly trained and are especially conditioned to respond appropriately in public situations.  Service dogs provide a critical service whereas pets are companions. Please don’t take me wrong – I know pets are special, too, but there is a huge difference between pets and service animals.

A service dog will not be aggressive toward people or other animals unless they sense their owner is in danger.  You won’t find a service dog begging for table scraps in a restaurant- they are almost exclusively kept on a dog food diet.  When in public, service dogs are working hard to assist their owner with activities of daily life that many of us take for granted,  and they don’t have time to be distracted by unusual  sights and smells. A service dog can make a huge difference for people with limited mobility, including the problems that may come with Multiple Sclerosis.

Advocates for service dogs are now asking the government to look at ways to certify service dogs.  For now, service dogs are not required to be registered  so the privacy of the owner may be protected.  It appears the government agency in charge of the ADA may need to revise rules for service animals, much like Disney World had little choice but to change their policies.  In both cases, the people who need extra help and consideration are hurt while the frauds pretending to have disabilities, continue to take advantage of the system.

Wishing you well,


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Dave
    6 years ago

    I think you have missed the point Laura as to what a service dog is….it is a dog which provides a service. Might be a huge service, might be a small service…but a service. My wife has MS, and in some aspects “I” am her “big service” dog in the way you look at what you think a service dog does. I help her up as needed, support her both physically and emotionally daily. We also have a dog, and recently moved into a condo which has a no pet policy. This dog does much for her in small ways that helps her coop with MS, which she has had for forty years. However, for our dog to be classified as a service dog, the dog needed to do “something”, “anything” which is of an important service to my wife. Yes, we talked about just getting the vest and patches, but we did not feel comfortable with that. So instead we did an analysis of the various things we felt our dog would qualify right now with doing, anf fulfilling a real need for my wife. We came up with two things. One thing that frightens my wife is falling down, injuring her hip replacement, and not having me there to help, and not having a phone there to call for help. This is a service our dog can fulfill very easy with little training (no professional training). She now has a small vest, we have a prepaid phone which costs us $10 for 120 days for 100 minutes, and when I leave to go to the store or whatever, we put the vest on the dog, which contains the cell phone. “IF” my wife falls, or even if she just can’t find her normal phone (which happens frequently) she can call the dog over and have access to a phone. We wonder why we did not think of this when we lived in a house where pet rules did not apply. Another thing is that sudden loud noises, such as a loud doorbell, can give her nerves a huge shake up. It can bring on an exacerbation of her MS, which we try to avoid like the plague. So we toned the bell way down, so low she cannot hear it if she is napping…but the dog hears it and instantly alerts her. Again, this service required little training, but is of a huge value to her/us. So when one looks at a service dog, don’t think about all the things one would typically think a service dog “has” to be trained to do….because they don’t have to be trained to do all those things to be considered a service dog. Yet the service, and the love and support, our little dog performs is as important to us as a seeing-eye dog is to a blind person. We would be very against any effort to have service dogs “certified”, because those who do the certifications are the ones who benefit from the huge amount of dollars the disabled would need to pay for training a service dog to do things which are not needed…such as in our situation. Yes, some people do fake it…but there are people who break all sorts of rules in our society, and sometimes the effort to control the few has such an adverse affect on the whole who are really in need. ~Dave

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Dave, The size of the animal has nothing to do with whether it is a service dog or not. Your dog is a perfect example of a service dog- there are specific tasks the animal is trained to do for your wife’s assistance and safety. Thanks for sharing this – I LOVE the idea of the prepaid phone and the pocket on the vest. That is brilliant. ~Laura

  • PamsaRN
    6 years ago

    Hi Laura, In August my husband and I took our 9 yr old to Disney World. I was dx with MS in 2001 and declared disabled by my state. I can walk short distances but, a Disney Park was never going to happen without assistance. I rented a scooter from a agency Disney recommended. After half a day of sitting in Lines in the hot sun I became ill. I went to Disney guest relations center with my disability card and a card for the MS medication that I took. They were so wonderful.They gave me a pass so I could use a alternative line to get out of the sun.Honestly I think I would have spent part of my vacation in bed without the pass.I saw lots of obese people with scooters and passes. Ugly looks are given to all using these passes unless hooked up to oxygen or a life machine ;(. Looking at me I’m sure some thought there is nothing wrong with her. I made a sign to go on the back of my scooter the 3rd day that said CURE MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS and the looks and whispering seemed to lessen. I hope this was somewhat informative. If I could give Disney one piece of advice it would be to keep their “Character Members” education on different disabilities and how they affect their guest. Thanks for a great article Laura.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Thanks for taking the time to share you experiences and your thoughts. I wrote about Disney a while back

    Unfortunately, due to the abuse of their system they have now changed their guest policy and it will be much more difficult to enjoy the parks.

    I can see the sytem for Service Dogs undergoing that same type of change. ~Laura

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Hi Ojibajo, so glad you found me here and added to the conversation. best, Laura

  • Mary
    6 years ago

    Hi Laura,

    I think you’re leaving out one important thing. A dog can be registered as a service dog even when they are an emotional support animal. While I appreciate you pointing out that there are frauds happening, sadly that is the world we are living in. There are frauds everywhere. Please don’t discount those of us who really do need our dogs as support and service.

    I registered my little 11 lb. guy as a service dog after having been mentally and physically ill for years. However, I had to have a letter from my therapist stating why it was necessary before I could do so. I left home at a young age, I have no family, have major anxiety issues, and was also diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis this year. BUT, I registered him before I knew I had MS because of the pure safety and comfort that he brings to me. I do have him very well trained while in a restaurant, you would never even know he was there. I don’t abuse the privilege, he’s not with me every single second I leave the house, but he is there for me emotionally, because if I am not feeling well physically or having an attack or a flare up, he brings me a peace and a comfort that no other person can. He is absolutely my best friend.

    This may sound silly to some, but it’s the truth and he really does help me get through each and every day when I am feeling awful. He knows those days that I am down or having an attack because dogs can tell when you are not feeling well physically, and he takes care of me with love and companionship, he senses it on these days and stays calm instead of wanting to play or be a normal dog. Making him a service dog was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I’m sorry that it’s being abused, but for some of us, the emotional aspect is very real and not a scam. I hate to see those who are frauds ruining it for the rest of us. As I said, I had to have a letter from my doctor in order to register him, so maybe that is where they need to crack down a little bit harder.

  • Ojibajo
    6 years ago

    Emotional support animals as important as they may be, are not covered by same laws as service animals.

    I had a boss who was blind and his dog when he got older and started to retire started to do things like wonder toward food and sniff peoples behinds. That was when he knew it was time for him to retire. However, prior to that, in his prime he was very attentive to what he was supposed to do, and was excellent about avoiding distractions.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Mary, these emotional support animals also provide a valuable service- emotional support from pets is a invaluable tool but most of them don’t qualify as a ‘service’ animal. I’m glad you have your dog properly registered. I know how attuned a dog can be to the needs and moods of its owner and how their response is therapeutic.

    There is a distinction between emotional support animals (ESA’s) and Service dogs (SD’s). A really good explanation of the difference is available at the website of Service Dogs of Florida, a non-profit training organization –

    They write –
    “The ADA now defines a service animal as: Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.”

    I hope these people who are scamming the system about their dogs don’t make it harder for people who count on their service animals to get their certification.

    best, Laura

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