Abuse of the Assistance Dog Concept Hurts All of Us

Each day, I receive at least one email or a Facebook link from someone, asking me to support a fundraiser that’s raising money to buy an assistance dog for a child in great need. Because so many of my Facebook friends are in the Epilepsy Community, most of the time the dogs are seizure alert dogs. I’m fascinated by these animals…their abilities, the needs they fulfill, the intense training that both dog and owner go through, and the improved quality of life they can provide to their owners.

And, it’s not just those with Epilepsy that a service dog can serve. Dogs can be hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, service dogs for children with autism and guide dogs for people with visual impairments. The world of service dogs, their training and care, is a remarkable one.

That’s why…when I learned last week that people actually can order identification packages online to pass their dog-their pet-off as a service dog, in order to take them anywhere they want to go, including on an airplane, I was mortified, to say the least. As someone with a chronic disease (or condition, however you choose to describe Epilepsy), I know the power of a trained animal…and how they assist those with Epilepsy. I don’t have one, but I’ve seen them in action, and it’s profound and compelling.

According to Paws With A Cause, “A dog can be trained to (among other things) push life-alert buttons, help and/or comfort a person during a seizure and get help or retrieve the phone for the client. Although we do not profess to train dogs to detect seizures, several of our Seizure Dogs have, after several years with a client, developed the ability to alert their owner of an oncoming seizure.”

And there are people out there mocking this concept? It’s unbelievable, simply put. So, I did some research.

It’s true, if you are a business owner, teacher, restaurant worker or an airline employee, there’s not much you can do if you suspect that a dog is not a trained service dog. “The issue is extremely complicated…the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is written so that people with disabilities do not have to ‘prove’ their disability to anyone,” according to Darlene Sullivan, Executive Director of Canine Partners for Life. So, abuse happens. It’s sort of a glitch in the system. Those people who have a legitimate disability and are lucky enough to have a trained service dog are essentially disrespected and insulted by the abuse of the system.

Photo: Canine Partners for Life

Living with a disability or a chronic illness, it feels as if these people are making fun of our challenges by ‘faking’ their need for a service dog. Trust me, I will trade places with anyone, any day, if you’d like to walk in my shoes!

Photo: Canine Partners for Life

So, what can we do? Not much, at least for now. But as advocates we have the power to change this. “A business is permitted to ask a person if they have a disability and if the dog is trained to assist them with that disability – they are not permitted to ask anything else,” Ms. Sullivan told me.

I hope in the coming months we can begin addressing this issue. I have a feeling we will. In the meantime, if this is upsetting you as much as it upsets me, I urge you to contact your legislators, your local Epilepsy Foundation and some of the assistance dog organizations for more information.

Here are some great ones that I’m in contact with:

Paws With A Cause, K94Life.org, International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Shae September 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm

“I’m fascinated by these companion pets…”
Service dogs are NOT pets. Companion dogs are not service dogs…and companion dogs do not go everywhere with their person, whereas service dogs DO. Please be very clear on these distinctions when writing an article that is aimed at educating the public about the importance of service animals and abuse of the ‘title’ of service dog. There are so many misconceptions out there, already.

pwd September 7, 2010 at 12:22 am

Actually there is one other question a businesses may ask. What task does your service dog do? Which is still included in the Newest Regulations that will be in effect in 2011. Many people have given their comments when it was up for public comments on the proposal before it actually was passed.

Under the new regulations Service Animals although must be *Individually Trained* to perform tasks to benefit the individual with a disability, there are many exclusions of what species are service animals. Dogs and Mini Horses are the only two species. All other types of animals whether trained or not are not consider Service Animals. This will stop most of those individual whom has emotional support animals in which they think are service animals.

Like any other type of law there will always be people abusing the system. Just look at how many people park in a handicapped parking spot. It’s convenient for them to take up that 1% of the area that is designated for those with a disability. People just do not care if it doesn’t involve them personally.

Greg September 7, 2010 at 11:01 am

The one thing I would add to this, is while I cannot speak to service or companion animals, I can say this – animals in general are very in tune with people in a way I cannot begin to understand. My fiancee and I had a cat until recently who, whenever I suffered a seizure during the night, would curl up with me immediately afterward and throughout most of the rest of the day. While Chandler would occasionally curl up with either one of us, the affection and love he showed to me after any one of my episodes was above and beyond the norm.
I think anyone suffering from a disability who benefits from the assistance, protection, and love of a service animal, companion animal, or pet should count themselves fortunate. Having that is a blessing.

Al Brittain September 8, 2010 at 11:24 am

Always great to see those outside the service dog world recognize that this is a big problem. Only surprise to me is that you’re surprised, honestly, but that’s just because I’m so involved with this area I forget everybody else who isn’t doesn’t realize that.

You’re definitely in contact with some great organizations. Darlene Sullivan is a great person to address this subject because in addition to running CP4L, she’s been very active in Assistance Dogs International for many years and serves as Chair of the North American Access and Advocacy Committee, which deals directly with these issues.

This problem is exactly why the current situation with Cesar Millan now saying his dog Junior is a service dog is getting a lot of attention (beyond the fact that just mentioning his name guarantees instant controversy in the dog world). There are a number of unanswered questions there (e.g., does he have a disability?) and, as I’ve said here, it’s important to focus on the issues, and not him, because they go way beyond one guy:


Again, thanks for addressing this.


Ferg_e September 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

WOW! That’s all I got, WOW! As the mother of an epileptic that is working with all her might to get my son a service dog…. This… This pisses me off.

Alysse September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am

Thanks for your comment.
The issue is also getting the attention of people like Joyce Bender, chairwoman of the Epilepsy Foundation of America. If you have a few minutes–maybe drop her an email to let her know your thoughts! Many thanks for reading–and all the very best with your son and your quest for a dog.

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Gayle March 15, 2015 at 3:53 pm

The problem isn’t online registration, but whether a person is truthful. You don’t need a card to own a service dog and you don’t need one to lie about your animal being a service dog. A card doesn’t change a manipulative heart, if someone wants to cheat, they’ll find a way to do so. Whether someone has a card from an online source – or paperwork at all – is immaterial.

I worked with a private trainer to train our dog to help me after I fall, seizure, do laundry or drop something that I can’t pick up. The trainer didn’t have access to a fancy agency. After the training, I obtained a card for him online. I wasn’t cheating, but I was trying to stop (mostly hotels) from insisting on a prescription from the doctor or paperwork to “prove” that he’s a service dog.

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