Is that Chihuahua a real service dog? The truth, unleashed.

Steve Griffin/The Deseret News/AP
Tiffany Thayne plays with her emotional support dog Dusty in her apartment in Provo, Utah, on March 13, 2019. Ms. Thayne is training Dusty, a collie puppy.
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“Mylie” had a vest and a service dog certificate. But in a recent incident at a Georgia beach, witnesses say she alarmed children and parents with aggressive and out-of-control behavior that drew a police response.

The final story of this altercation hasn’t yet been established, but in general the issue of fake or poorly trained service dogs is a real American problem. There aren’t many legal standards that service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs must meet. Nor is there a national registry for trained animals. Vests and laminated cards don’t mean much – they can be easily bought on the internet. The result is owners passing off badly prepared animals or family pets as “service” dogs.

Altercations in stores, on beaches, and at airline seats have become so bad almost half the states have passed laws banning fake service animals in recent years. How can you tell if that Chihuahua at the cafe table is a real service animal? It should be calm, under control, and housebroken, experts say. And it should rest or focus on doing a specific job to help someone with a disability.

Why We Wrote This

Highly trained service animals can be invaluable to people with disabilities. But the problem of badly prepared or imposter “service” dogs is growing ​– possibly threatening the image and acceptance of the real thing.

Despite the official-looking red vest and a laminated ID tag that proclaimed it a “service dog,” beachgoers noticed something off about “Mylie.”

Witnesses say that on a packed day at this sandy barrier island 18 miles east of Savannah, Georgia, the large dog bounded and barked, scaring children and worrying parents. Eventually someone called the cops. When an officer approached the dog’s young female owner in a parking lot, the dog lunged at him.

Crying, Mylie’s owner told a local TV station the officer “was rogue” when he pushed her face to the hot pavement and arrested her. He also cuffed her father, who rushed toward the scene. Mylie’s job is to ease her anxiety disorder, the owner said. She and her family have hired a lawyer to pursue charges against the police.

Why We Wrote This

Highly trained service animals can be invaluable to people with disabilities. But the problem of badly prepared or imposter “service” dogs is growing ​– possibly threatening the image and acceptance of the real thing.

Onlookers weren’t sure what to make of it all, and more details of this story may yet emerge. But Ryan Heebner, who rents umbrellas on the beach, saw the incident – and what he saw was a dog creating the commotion, “service” tag notwithstanding.

“Ten years ago, a service dog was a docile Lab helping a blind person,” says Mr. Heebner. “Now you have people who have a problem being alone using them, and a lot of people use it as an excuse and a privilege.”

Known originally as guide dogs, highly trained service dogs have helped disabled humans for more than a century. Some cost $50,000 or more to train.

Legitimate service animals help blind people cross streets and deaf individuals to respond to audible cues. They alert people with seizure disorders to a looming event. They steer those diagnosed with PTSD away from triggering sounds, and offer unconditional emotional refuge for returned soldiers.

But the truth is that in America today there are service animals, and “service animals.” Not all the dogs that people use to assist them in public places are thoroughly trained, as there are no training requirements. There’s no national service animal registry, and official-looking vests and certificates are widely available on the internet – few or no questions asked.  

Pushing social boundaries

The bottom line: Some Americans are abusing legal loopholes the size of Great Danes by self-declaring pets as service animals. And a growing number of unprepared dogs posing as helpers are pushing the boundaries of civil society, and forcing nondog people, such as cops, airline employees, and restaurant managers, into confrontational situations fraught with legal land mines.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
​Umbrella rental stand workers Beau Buie and Ryan Heebner (r.) say a pet ban on Tybee Beach in Georgia is sometimes broken by dog owners who claim their pets are service animals. When people stretch the rules, there can be repercussions including resentment against legitimate service dog users, Mr. Heebner says.​

“More people are qualifying for service dogs, there is a lot of misunderstanding, and many people are outright fraudulent, pushing the boundaries for their own ego and their own ease, with no sense of consequences,” says David Favre, a Michigan State University professor of law and author of “Animal Law: Welfare, Interests, and Rights.”

Federal law defines three categories of disability animals: service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals.

Service animals are supposed to be dogs (or miniature horses) individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they are allowed in any public space, including stores and restaurants. But they must be kept under control, and be housebroken.

Emotional support animals provide a sense of calm and companionship, but aren’t necessarily trained in obedience or other disability tasks. Federal housing law allows people to keep emotional support animals without paying a pet fee. Airlines allow them on planes without charge ​– although some airlines have put parameters on access after incidents such as a passenger’s attempt to board a United Airlines flight with a peacock last year.

Therapy animals are trained to interact with groups of people, such as hospital patients or library patrons.

Little regulation

Certification is largely an honor system. Due to medical privacy laws and other statutes, staff members of public places may ask only two questions about service dogs: whether a dog is a service animal required for a disability, and what task the dog (or horse) has been trained to perform.

The internet offers a variety of certification agencies that send an ID with a picture of the dog after a short interview. Most charge about $100. They are largely a ruse, experts say, because by law, service dogs need no identification, papers, letters, or even a vest.

It’s hard to know the number of fraudulent service dogs, given the lack of a central database. But one licensing website reported its client list growing from around 2,000 to 11,000 members between 2012 and 2013.

Nearly everyone contacted for this story knew someone ​– including a 90-something mother ​– who had either bought a service dog vest for a pet, or saw nothing wrong with it.

“I can’t tell if it’s getting better or worse, but so many people are passing their pets off as service animals or comfort animals, and they are the ones who, when you encounter them, the first thing they say is, ‘I have this certification, this ID card; this is a legitimate service animal,’” says James Aberson, the ADA coordinator for Georgia’s Chatham County, which encompasses Tybee Island. “That’s a red flag right off the bat.”

What’s behind this trend? One reason for the increase in “service” animals may be that in our anxiety-fueled age, more and more people view their animals as indispensable companions. Upwards of 90% of Americans view pets as family members; 76% of dog owners say they have given their pet presents on Christmas, according to a 2006 Gallup poll.

“There’s a widespread belief that animals are good for people and that particularly dogs have almost magical healing powers,” says Harold Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor who studies the interaction between humans and other species.

Not every dog has the “right stuff”

“But the truth is that about 50% of dogs that go into guide dog training flunk out. They don’t have the right stuff to walk into that bar and lie down and sort of be alert but on the other hand not be a problem,” adds Dr. Herzog, author of “Some We Love, Some We Hate, and Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals.”

The situation has gotten so far out of hand so fast that some experts say Congress needs to amend the ADA to address the situation.

“It’s the Wild West,” says Claudine Wilkins, a former prosecutor who wrote Georgia’s dangerous dog law.

In just the past few years, nearly half the states have passed laws declaring fake service dogs a misdemeanor crime. After incidents where dog fights broke out and passengers were bitten, airlines, too, have begun cracking down, with some requiring letters from actual doctors to accommodate emotional support animals.

Again, more facts may emerge regarding the incident here at Tybee Beach. But experts say it appears to be evidence of the danger of using untrained or poorly trained service animals.

Mylie’s owner insisted the dog was behaving properly because it had been trained to keep people away from her to ease her anxiety disorder. But true service dogs don’t threaten others. Federal law allows business owners and airline agents to ask any misbehaving dog to leave, even if it is clearly in the company of a disabled person.

“There are going to be problems, because if you have a lady who says, ‘My dog can go ahead and nip at people because it’s trained to keep people away from me,’ it’s not going to win in a courtroom,” says former prosecutor Claudine Wilkins. “At least I hope not.”

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