Have you seen news stories about service dog fraud or “fakers?” It seems almost every day I see a news story or article about people fraudulently misrepresenting a pet as a service dog. Many states are starting to pass laws in response to this issue. However, my experience is that yes, this happens, but not as often as some may think.
I really dislike the term “faker” because this implies that the person did not have a disability. You cannot assume a person does not have a disability just because the disability is not overtly visually obvious. In many cases, the person may have a disability, may even have trained the dog a few very useful tasks, but did not sufficiently train the dog nor select a dog with a temperament inappropriate for service work. In fact, I often get calls from people with disabilities who have dogs they have inadequately trained or selected for service work. They want help because their dog is behaving inappropriately. In short, it’s usually less a matter of “faking” than it is a matter of being misinformed, not taking the time and effort to train the dog appropriately or having difficulty finding professional support.
There is a small problem with “fakers” and a big problem with inadequately trained and chosen service dogs. I wish this was the only industry challenge. Sadly there’s much more, here are a few of the additional problems facing the industry today:
- Too few pet dog trainers are knowledgeable and skilled in service dog training. If people cannot find qualified help, they will DIY it without any direct in person professional support.
- Confusing laws. Service dog, Emotional Support Animal, it’s a mess – especially when it comes to air travel. Unclear legislation leads to people breaking laws simply because they do not understand them or take advantage of the ambiguity.
- “Snake oil” claims about service dogs. There are many claims about things that service dogs can do that are taken as facts when they are not supported by controlled medical research. In short, if it sounds like a magical or really special power that a dog has, look at what the science has to say, it may surprise you to learn there is very little controlled scientific research about service dogs. The National Library of Medicine is a good starting point. People assume that a service dog is exactly what a person needs, when in fact, another intervention may actually be better. This leads us right to the next challenge:
- Lack of involvement of healthcare professionals in task selection. I see often see articles and videos about dogs trained to engage in behaviors that appear high risk to the person, the dog and of questionable medical benefit. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, doctors and mental health professionals must be involved and consulted in task selection.
- Healthcare professionals are writing letters for need of a service dog without actually understanding or knowing much about service dogs. My brilliant friend, Dr. Myrna Milani did a wonderful job addressing this issue.
- Lack of consideration of the dog’s behavioral needs. It is essential to the dog’s ability to perform work as a service dog that the dog’s needs are met. Additionally dog trainers involved in service dog training should show good judgement and consideration of the animal’s welfare in everything from task selection to ensuring that the dog gets breaks, time off duty and sufficient environmental enrichment.
- Misinformation about what is actually involved in training a service dog, the length of time, requirements, level of expertise needed. It takes months to years not weeks to train a service dog appropriately.
- Use of aversive tools and techniques to train service dogs. The same challenges in training methodology prevalent in the pet dog industry exist with service dog training. However, a service dog subjected to aversive tools and training techniques experiences those tools and techniques for much longer duration than a pet.
There sure are a lot of challenges! But there are plenty of opportunities for change as well. Can you think of other service dog industry challenges? Feel free to comment below.