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Your Pet Is Not Your Service Dog

“You are so lucky to get to take your dog everywhere! How do I get my dog certified as a service dog?”

This is a question that we service dog handlers hear all too often and causes anywhere from mild annoyance to actual problems. While I must admit, I sometimes lose patience and respond to this question with a snarky: “Well, first you must have a debilitating disability,” there are more eloquent and educational ways to tackle to issue. 

What is a service dog and why does it go everywhere with its handler?

A service dog is a dog specially trained to perform tasks which will help mitigate a person’s disability. This may include helping someone with mobility issues pick up items off the floor, protecting a person from harm during a seizure, or perhaps alerting someone with PTSD that another person is coming up close behind. Service dogs get to go everywhere with their handlers because they are a medical necessity to them. To tell a person they are “lucky” to take their dog everywhere is implying they are lucky to be needing a service dog in the first place. While there is much pride to be had as a disabled individual, most of us do not want to be told we are lucky to have disabilities. It is also important to note that sometimes a service dog handler will choose not to bring their dog with them, and this does not decrease the legitimacy or necessity of the dog.

Why shouldn’t you pretend your dog is a service dog? Where is the harm?

Difficulties for Actual Service Dog Handlers

Well first and foremost, it is against the law in most states. More importantly, it highly complicates the lives of actual service dog handlers in a variety of ways. Not long ago, I was walking through my local grocery store when I saw a dog that clearly was not a service dog. He was pulling on his leash, sniffing the food, and most importantly, his owner was doing absolutely nothing to address his behavior. The dog saw us as they walked by, growled and pounced. Thankfully no physical harm was caused to my dog or to myself. However, my dog became distracted from his job which could have put me in a lot of danger.

Now, imagine you own a restaurant. In the past week you have had someone come in with their “service dog”. The dog began sniffing around people’s tables, caused disturbances, maybe urinated on the floor. You might be tempted to tell the next service dog team to go away before even seating them at a table. Though, of course, this is just as illegal as passing your dog off as a service animal.

So, as a business owner, what can you ask and what are your rights?

Because of the amount of fake teams, it can be tricky for people to trust the legitimacy of service dogs, especially when the handler “looks healthy.” The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require any type of paper work or form of identification. It also does not require any type of vest to be worn (though most handlers will chose to have their dog vested).

You may not ask a service dog handler for paper work or proof of certification.

You may not ask a service dog handler about their disability.

You may ask two questions:

  • Is this a service dog?
  • What service/tasks does he perform?

However, if the dog is creating a disturbance (repetitive barking, growling, showing aggressive behavior etc.), you have the right to ask the service dog team to leave.

Stress on YOUR Pet

There is a reason why service dogs require specific temperaments and training that goes far beyond obedience training. They need to be not just tolerant, but actually comfortable in all types of public spaces they may encounter. Pet dogs are far more likely to display signs of stress when taken into settings that are not typical for them. Stress may be mild such as lip licking or excessive yawning, but at its worse can lead to your dog completely shutting down or becoming aggressive towards other dogs or people. It is unfair to your pet dog, who has not spent years training for a working life, to pass them off as a service animal. 


Let your Pet be a Pet

It is clear that there are many reasons why you should not be passing your pet off as your service animal. Not only is it against the law in many states, but it continues to keep barriers up for people with disabilities who have been fighting for many years to break them down. There are many pet friendly places you can enjoy spending time with your dog, there is no need to pass them off as your service dog to get them into a grocery store. We do not allow just anyone to go into the operating room and hold a scalpel. The same concept goes for a service dog. These animals have gone through significant training and are experts in what they do. Your pet is a wonderful companion and friend, but does not need to be holding the scalpel.

Atlas Training Support

Atlas supports individuals with disabilities who wish to train their own service dog. We recognize that there are many people who would indeed qualify for a service dog but who have not been able to access quality support and training. If you would like to learn more about our Client Training Program, please visit our page: or contact us directly with any questions:


Author: Molly Neher

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