There is a great deal of misunderstanding and agitation recently about illegitimate "service" dogs entering North State businesses.

The "services" that dogs can perform are multiplying, and not all of these uses are obvious. Diabetic alert, PTSD, autism, and seizure-alert dogs may accompany a person who looks perfectly "healthy". Also, lab, golden retriever, and German shepherd dogs are no longer the only breeds used for service.

Service Dogs

To define terms, a "service" animal is one trained to perform a necessary intervention to protect their handler's health and well-being. These trained animals are treated like medical equipment by ADA regulations. They can go with their handlers pretty much anywhere and no license, certificate, vest, or doctor's note is required. The handler must merely answer the questions "Is this a service dog?" and "What is the dog trained to do?" The dog must be trained for the medical or psychiatric service but no demonstration or record of this training needs to be provided "on the spot" to a store owner. However, in the event of legal action, a logbook documenting the dog's daily training over the years is extremely valuable.

Pychiatric service dogs fall under this so long as the dog is trained to intervene, usually to interrupt and redirect the handler during emotional spikes. Watch a video on how dogs can help PTSD.


Emotional support

Camber is NOT a service dogAn "emotional support" animal is one who is not trained for service. The mere presence of the animal is comforting apart from any action on its part. These animals are very important in our increasingly depressed and disconnected society. It may be the only living thing that a person truly loves or trusts and can provide a link to interacting with the outside world. There is no ADA allowance for bringing these animals into eating establishments or "no dogs allowed" businesses. However, they are allowed on airplanes and in "no-pets" housing with a doctor's note. More info on the rights of ESA users to access rentals and workplaces can be found here. If you are not sure whether a dog is a service dog or just "calming" (this can be blurry with autism-related services), please read more about the difference between "emotional support" and psychiatric service dogs.

Therapy Dogs

Roxy, an actual Therapy Dog in training

Some people confuse the term "therapy dog" with emotional support or service dog. Therapy dogs are something entirely different. Their job is to bring comfort to strangers, not their owners. They go to hospitals, nursing homes, or disaster areas and basically just cuddle, which, believe me, is a huge service to depressed or distraught people. They are often used for children to read to. Because therapy dog handlers are agents providing a service to the public, they and their dogs must be extensively trained, certified, and insured through a national organization. Although certified therapy dogs are impeccably trained and stable individuals, there is no law allowing them access to "no dogs" establishments.

But my nice dog isn't any of these!

Many people want to take their pet dogs with them wherever they go, for comfort or convenience. However, CA laws are fairly strict about where pet dogs may go. Safety first and all that. Businesses may also choose to restrict access for insurance reasons. Some unscrupulous people have discovered that they can buy a vest on eBay and pass their pet off as a service dog. Let me tell you why this is not a good idea:

1. If you don't have a trained service dog, putting a "service dog" vest on your pet is what's called "lying". Your mama warned you about this.

2. When you lie about your pet being a service dog, you are committing a misdemeanor in California. If the Law chooses to make an example of you, you could face a hefty fine and possible jail time.

3. Being "made an example of" is especially likely if your poorly-trained dog injures someone. The majority of dogs aren't comfortable handling the stress of public access and most owners do not train their dogs to the degree necessary. This is why "real" service dogs are rare and pricey. You are liable for any damage to merchandise your falsely-labeled dog commits-- actually, even if you have a genuine service dog, you're still liable! In certain cases involving bites to the public (even if a bite was "provoked"), your poor dog could be seized and possibly euthanized. If your dog injures or interferes with a genuine service dog, you're looking at a minimum fine of $1K and some really, really angry people :-(

How to take your pet anywhere as a service dog:

1. Have a legitimate need for a service animal. If you don't have a medical need that a dog can help with, count yourself blessed and do like the rest of us, leave your dog at home.

2. Take professional lessons on the subject of training your dog to perform a medical service, as well as the separate skill of handling a service dog in public. Depending on what you have to work with, you may be able to do most of the work yourself and get by spending only around $1000 on training, which is a lot cheaper than a trip to the hospital.

3. Once you have the basics down, expect to devote at least 20 minutes a day to training or practice, for the rest of the dog's working life. Service dogs are not maintenance-free equipment.

4. Study your rights and responsibilities as a service dog handler, both in ADA and California law.

5. Identify your dog clearly, keep vaccinations up to date, and license it in the city or county. Get a CGC title to add legitimacy. If your dog cannot easily pass CGC, you need to get a different dog for service use, as it is unfair to your current dog to be putting it in situations it can't emotionally cope with.

6. Be aware that service dog "fraud" is only growing and you will likely be viewed with suspicion. Be patient with store owners who question whether you are the real deal or just another pretender. This is especially true if you have a breed of dog that is unusual in service.

If you think a dog is falsely labeled:

Not a service dog-- not going in the grocery store. Good dog.

1. First of all, if you are not the store owner, it is usually not your job to question a dog being there. Assume the best and be tolerant. If the dog is doing something that is hurting the store or others, report it to the manager and let them take action if they choose.

2. If it is your business and you have concerns about the dog's behavior, you may ask two questions: "Is this a service dog?" and "What service is it trained to perform?" There is no requirement for a service dog to have an ID, license or certification and real service dog handlers know this. If the answers to these two questions sound legit, all's well. Have a witness verify the person's responses to the two legal questions. If they say something like "It's a therapy dog" or "It's for emotional support", you have the option of telling the person that due to state law or your insurance or your own personal preferences, you only allow trained medical or psychiatric service dogs on the premises.

3. According to the ADA "A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence." Concerns about allergies or phobia of dogs is not sufficient cause to request a dog be removed. If you own any sort of business, you should be very familiar with ADA requirements on this subject.

4. If you do need to ask that a service dog or possible fraud be removed, take lots of photos and video that demonstrate a. The dog is out of control or b. The dog is not housebroken. Again, these are the only things you can require from a genuine service dog. Just because a dog is acting up doesn't mean it's not a service dog. That's for the court to decide, not you. Service dogs have bad days too. Along with photo/video proof, ask witnesses for contact info, get signed statements, and in every way possible cover your butt. You don't want it to come down to your word against theirs.