Flights of Fancy: Real vs. Fake Service Dogs

A picture popped up on Facebook right after Eukanuba showing two assistance dogs, both of a rare breed, both in show coats, both traveling together with two people, wearing their service dog vests and waiting to board a plane at the Orlando airport. I suspect they were not the only such dogs. Looking at all the service dogs prancing through the airports on their way to be shown at Eukanuba or Westminster is enough to make us all proud—or ashamed. If these show dogs are in fact service dogs, it’s definitely a source of pride for our sport. If they are fakers, it’s a huge point of shame.

From the column "Thoughts I Had Driving Home From The Dog Show" – ShowSight Magazine, May 2016 issue

And the problem is, we all know many who are fakers, often by their owners’ or handlers’ admission. I know of judges who can travel to shows alone and stand and judge all day long, but when they travel to show their own dog, they need a service dog. I know of competitors who need a service dog to get through the airport so they can then walk in the fields hunting behind that dog all day. No, I do not believe your untrained Bulldog is your mobility assistance dog. I do not believe your Neapolitan Mastiff is your hearing assistance dog. I do not believe every other show dog is a low-blood-sugar or seizure alert dog. Ask some of the handlers of the top dogs if their dog flies cargo, and you’ll often just get an embarrassed grin with a change of subject. Ask a few you know a little better and you’ll get all sorts of reasons why they have to fly a service dog.


“How else could I get to all the shows?” is the most common reason. They may add that their competition is doing it, or their competition is a little dog that gets to fly in the cabin so it’s unfair, the shows are too far in distance and too close in time to get to the judges they need, their breed is brachycephalic and can’t fly underneath, they don’t have time to drive, the airlines charge exorbitant fees to fly below, their dog is as well-behaved as any service dog, they’re giving show dogs a good name and who’s it hurting?

Let’s start with the last question. It’s hurting real service dogs, show dogs in general and me. Real service dogs because too many fake service dogs are obviously imposters. They’re often poorly behaved and so many imposters are out there people now eye real service dogs with suspicion. Not to mention some fake service dogs have even attacked and severely injured real service dogs in close proximity.

It hurts show dogs in general because one day this won’t be the show world’s dirty little secret. One day an enterprising reporter is going to sit in LaGuardia and take pictures and polls of service dogs on their way to Westminster. Maybe they won’t be able to prove they’re not service dogs, but they’ll have enough information to raise suspicion in the eyes of the public who already thinks we snobby dog show folk think our dogs are “better” and “entitled.”

And it hurts me, and other competitors who don’t fly the faking skies, because when we can’t drive or fly our dogs beneath—we don’t go. I would love to go to Palm Springs and Lompoc, but I usually don’t because I won’t fly my dog as cargo and won’t pretend he’s a service dog. Yes, I’ve sacrificed many chances at awards and points, but I didn’t sacrifice my values. But when my competition has no such qualms, and manages to beat me out because of that, you better believe it  hurts me.

I am not unsympathetic. How do we get our dogs safely to distant shows, especially those can’t-miss ones like Westminster, Eukanuba and our national specialties? As I said, I drive. And yeah, I do sometimes miss can’t-miss shows. I have friends who fly their dogs down below. This is not cheap. My friend tells me it costs her $800 each way to fly her Saluki across the continent. Add to that the unease of putting your dog in somebody else’s care and worry about the stories of overheated and lost dogs, and I thoroughly understand the temptation to fly Imposter Air.

The problem, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to finger an imposter. Many disabilities are invisible, so just because somebody isn’t tapping down the aisle with a white cane doesn’t mean they don’t need a dog. Hearing assistance, seizure alert and emotional support dogs are just a few examples of helping non-obvious challenges. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs can legally accompany people with disabilities in any area where the public can go. Dogs whose sole function is to provide emotional support do not qualify as service animals. Legally, airlines can ask their owners only two questions: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Quite honestly, I’m surprised even these questions are allowed; you can’t legally ask somebody, “What’s wrong with you?” However, by asking what task the dog does you’re indirectly asking what’s wrong with the person. A service dog license—and not the fake ones you get off the Internet—would make those invasive questions unnecessary.

But while many owners of true service dogs applaud this move, other service dog owners (and I’ve yet to figure out if they own real or fake ones) object to it, saying it would be costly for them to travel to test sites and add the onus of having to prove their dog was legit. And what if they left their papers at home? These problems don’t seem insurmountable. Create a fund for owners who can’t afford testing. Create a computer database accessible to airlines to verify licensing. They further resent being made to carry a license, but how is that different from requiring a placard in your car before you can park in the handicapped space?

Of course, what we really want is for our dogs to fly up top legitimately. What if we devised a Good Citizen type test that certified a dog well-behaved enough to travel? The dog would have to traverse crowded areas, stand in line for five minutes without sniffing or acting aggressive and lie down in a crowded space simulating an airplane seating area for ten minutes without interfering with a neighboring person, barking or acting aggressive. Maybe a photo ID would suffice, or there’d need to be a microchip scanner where you get your take-on baggage screened. And yes, you’d need to pay for an extra seat if your dog didn’t fit right in front of your own. And you’d need some proof of insurance against dog bites. Maybe planes would be divided into pet and non-pet sections, just as we used to have smoking and non-smoking. Barking dogs, like crying kids, would be parachuted out. (Note: I have just been informed they don’t parachute babies from planes, so do with the barking dogs whatever they do with babies now…)

I did briefly worry that such a scheme would enable terrorists to board planes with attack dogs, but then I realized they could do that now and just claim they were service dogs. Assuming they did not have higher morals than dog show people.

Canine Companions for Independence has an online campaign in which signers pledge not to pretend their dogs are service dogs. It’s already garnered 25,000 signatures. Wouldn’t it be great to have a similar pledge for dog exhibitors on the AKC site? Or even a statement in our ads stating we signed the CCI pledge? Or didn’t fly as fake service dogs?

The AKC has issued this statement: “The AKC strongly condemns characterizing dogs as service animals when they are not, or attempting to benefit from a dog’s service dog status when the individual using the dog is not a person with a disability.” While nobody expects AKC spies to run around airports and accuse exhibitors of fraud, if the day ever comes when people are arrested and convicted of such, AKC should impose a mandatory suspension of three months (more for subsequent convictions). Especially with AKC’s support of the ACE awards for service dogs, to do less seems hypocritical.

I’ve concentrated on air travel because that’s the most abused by dog exhibitors. Again I confess to resenting seeing my competition waltz into a nice restaurant with their lunging “service” dog during hot weather while I drive through Taco Bell, because I couldn’t leave my well-behaved, non-fake-service dog in the car (okay, if you know me you know I probably really wanted to go to Taco Bell anyway, but still…).

By the way, I wonder how much it would cost to charter a bus and everybody get together and travel across country—with their dogs—to Westminster or such while leaving the driving to them? I got ready to say it seems like a fun idea, but maybe not, but it would be an adventure you’d always talk about. Maybe not in glowing terms, at least not at first, but the Donner party (or part of them) had stories to tell for a lifetime, once they got through a few difficulties. 

The states below have laws against fraudulent use of service dogs. The consequences, however, tend to be minimal:

California: Imprisonment not exceeding  6 months, by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or  by both.

Colorado: Class 1 petty offense.

Florida: Second degree misdemeanor, with fine 
of up to $500 plus 30 hours of community 
service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities.

Iowa: Falsely using an assistance dog: 

Kansas: Class A misdemeanor.

Maine: Fine of not more than $500.

Michigan: Misdemeanor with fine of not more than $10

Missouri: Class C misdemeanor and shall also be civilly liable for the amount of any actual damages resulting from such impersonation. Any subsequent violation is a class B misdemeanor.

Nebraska: Only mentions unlawful use of guide dogs for the blind: Class III misdemeanor.

Nevada: Misdemeanor with a fine of not more than $500.

New Hampshire: Misdemeanor

New Jersey: Only mentions unlawful use of guide dogs for the blind: fined not less than $100 and not more than $500.

New Mexico: Misdemeanor

New York: “Violation” 
(no consequences mentioned)

North Carolina: Class 3 misdemeanor

Texas: Misdemeanor with a fine of not more than $300 and 30 hours of community service.

Utah: Class B misdemeanor

Washington: “Unlawful” 
(no consequences mentioned)

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