Why You Shouldn’t Fake Service Animal Status for Your Pet

Amy & Rod Burkert Amy & Rod Burkert  |  06.04.2017

We need to talk about something that really gets my hackles up … companies that say they will help you register your pet as an emotional support animal so you can “travel with them anywhere in just two minutes.”

Perhaps you’ve seen ads like this on the Internet or in your Facebook feed:

Identifying information for this unscrupulous company was removed.

First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way:

  • A service animal means any dog or miniature horse that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button. Service animals are permitted access to all public facilities and accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • While emotional support animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These animals may help relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks. Having a doctor’s note does not transform an emotional support animal into a service animal, and emotional support animals are afforded special access only under the Fair Housing Act when their presence would otherwise be prohibited in a residence.
  • Therapy animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, like hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. Therapy animals are not allowed any special access, unless agreed to in advance by the facility.

The nuances between service animals and emotional support animals are not well understood, and questioning those needing an assistance animal can be delicate. Unfortunately, those two factors combined result in a lot of abuse of the system.

So, what’s wrong with these companies offering to register your pet as an emotional support animal?

First, the ad implies that once he’s registered your pet will be able to go with you anywhere, with no fees – just like a service animal. That’s absolutely incorrect. The ADA does not apply to people with emotional support animals. And falsely claiming that your pet is a service animal is a federal offense. Many states also have laws against it.

Second, it’s a scam. There is no universally recognized registration system for service animals or emotional support animals. Further, the law is very specific that service animals do not require any form of identification. Some people requiring assistance animals choose not to be identified as “disabled,” and therefore prefer not to use a special vest or credentials.

Establishing a comfort animal as an emotional support animal requires only a letter of prescription from a licensed medical professional who has completed an examination, determined the person’s condition to be debilitating, and states that a support animal will alleviate the symptoms.

However, be aware that there are only two protections afforded to emotional support animals: They can live with their owners in housing where pets are otherwise not allowed; and they can accompany their people in the cabin of an aircraft. That’s it. These animals are not allowed to go into restaurants, grocery stores, or anywhere else that pets cannot go.

Finally, by exploiting the public’s ignorance about the requirements and protections afforded to emotional support animals, these companies enable their customers (perhaps unwittingly) to take advantage of business owners who are uninformed about the laws. Faking that your pet is a service or emotional support animal raises the suspicion business proprietors cast on people with actual disabilities who are just trying to live their lives.

If you are not blind or deaf, if you are not confined to a wheelchair, if you’re not suffering from seizures, diabetes, or a debilitating emotional condition that cuts you off from the rest of the world, why would you even consider making life more challenging for the people who are?

Use GoPetFriendly.com Instead

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be able to take Buster and Ty with me everywhere I go. It’s the whole reason we started GoPetFriendly.com in the first place! We wanted to make it easy for all of us to find pet friendly campgrounds, restaurants that welcome dogs on the patio, and fun activities like wineries, beaches, hiking trails, and shopping centers that we can enjoy together. We’ve been traveling full time for more than seven years, and we still haven’t seen it all – so there’s plenty to do with your pets when you’re playing by the rules.

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  1. Service Dog Registration Posted on 05.23.2018

    Well, that was a pretty fascinating read, not going to lie. I really hope you continue to write. Probably one of the more informative pieces I’ve read on this subject. Thanks!

  2. Annoyed Posted on 12.10.2017

    Nancy’s comment hit the nail on the head. I have Bipolar 1 Rapid Cycling and cannot afford a $30,000 Service Animal. Therefore I have an ESA. I get here that you are talking moreso about those “faking” the status, however you’ve done so in a way that manages to offend the rest of us legitimate ESA owners. Additionally, for those of you who believe it is only going to make it harder for us legitimate owners in the end, it won’t. Under federal law you can’t question it, so just bite your lip and move on. There are only two questions you can legally ask. 1) Is your dog a service/emotional support animal? 2) What tasks can the dog perform in assistance for you? That is it. You can’t ask them to prove anything. Sounds like you need to have a little faith in humanity. I sure hope this wasn’t your marketing strategy to promote your brand. If so, you’re as bad as the people who actually are taking advantage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Faking your pet status?” “Let me talk about you and then sell you on my website.” Gross…

  3. infopdscenter Posted on 10.11.2017

    Thanks for the very good article.

  4. alex Posted on 07.16.2017

    Nancy Montag,
    You were scammed but, of your dog has been trained to alert to a medical event such as a panic attack, she is not a ESA any longer, she is a service dog by law. She is of course subject to the same scrutiny as any service dog, her behavior must be flawless and cause no distractions but you aren’t breaking the law, you just paid money you didn’t need to pay.

  5. mary Posted on 07.16.2017

    emotional disturbed people need service dogs please don’t belittle them. this is real. scammers are everywhere but it’s not because of the anxiety people with dogs every law and rule have scammers. it’s not because of them they just need help as much as someone like me in a wheel chair

  6. Nancy Montag Posted on 06.12.2017

    Thank you, Tony Reid! I truly appreciate your response….and, I really needed to hear that I am not the only one who disagreed with the Berkert’s attempt to categorize people in situations they don’t recognize or understand. Yes, I am more than aware that too many are abusing the system. Sadly, those types will always continue to do so at every opportunity. But, rather than accuse a few of us of abusing the system….. the law needs to crack down on the MILLIONS of people abusing the USA welfare system!! Now, that is worth addressing (IMHO).

  7. shelby Posted on 06.12.2017

    I have an ESA, and I’m currently trying to get him registered for PTSD.. we have 6 years of training together and he’s helped me countless times. October 9th both of our lives changed and is why I’m currently trying to have him registered. I cannot be in crowded large areas for long periods of time, and I cannot be around any noise that sounds like gun shots without having flashbacks and episodes. So I may be “breaking the law” but I’ve followed all the appropriate channels and don’t feel it’s right to shame people for doing what they need to further their own life in a positive manor. I work as a dog trainer so I know people like whom you speak of, but I feel it’s the people that sell the service dog vests and I’d cards and certificates that should be held responsible cause then there would be none of those problems spoke about in the article above. Thanks for listening.

  8. Christie Posted on 06.12.2017

    Tony Reid, no where did Amy and Rod condemn all ESA users.

    “Finally, by exploiting the public’s ignorance about the requirements and protections afforded to emotional support animals, these companies enable their customers (perhaps unwittingly) to take advantage of business owners who are uninformed about the laws.”

    That is clearly what happened to Nancy Montag and anyone else who went through one of these companies because there is so much misinformation out there that people think that’s what they do.

    More work needs to be done to get the right information out. It’s not Nancy Montag’s fault, and Amy and Rod are doing exactly what needs to be done.

  9. Neil Posted on 06.11.2017

    I have been involved with Pet Therapy for over 15 years with four dogs. They are afforded many extra considerations when working in a Children’s Hospital or doing Stress Busters at an Airport. The bigger dogs do Not fly in the cabin of an airplane but the little dog may be placed under my seat in an approved pet carrier. One of my dogs could recognize an Austic Eposide and help to stop it. I do not have Autism so he is not a Service Dog. The one I presently can detect Diabetes and again I am not Diabetic so he is not a Service Dog. Please do not register an animal without proper training and skills as a Service Animal that you do not require. If you have special needs and have a Dog with Qualifications I have the utmost respect for you and your animal. PTSD dogs are becoming more common. They don’t wear any special equipment. If you are afraid to fly please take a pill and do not disrespect our Military by registering your Pet as a Service Dog to allow you to take it where it does not belong! I

  10. Tony Reid Posted on 06.10.2017

    Nancy, you are not breaking any law. The law clearly provides the category of ESA for people like you and many others who depend on the comfort of having an animal companion with them. My wife also has an ESA. We know we can’t bring it in places that serve food so we don’t attempt to. However, we do travel and the ESA designation allows us to stay in hotels and keep her companion dog with us. Shame on Amy and Rod Berkert for condemning all ESA owners for the sins of others, and then promoting their website as the only answer.

  11. Nancy Montag Posted on 06.10.2017

    With the stroke of a pen, my life seems over after reading this article. I am a 62 year old cancer victim who opted out of using poison (chemo) to fight my cancer.
    Add to that the fact I now have no insurance, thanks to “unafforadable” Obamacare and the horrific mess of our political system.
    I do not qualify for disability since it was over 10 years since I worked, and I am not old enough for Medicare. I have no idea if I my cancer has reoccurred because I can’t afford the scans.
    So, to keep my mind off of things, we chose to become full-time RVer’s and start fulfilling my Bucket List.
    A lot of my decisions were based on the fact that my 7 year old Bichon, Dodie, is the light of my life. She never left my side during my radical bilateral mastectomy recovery and when I read I qualified to have her registered as an Emotional Support Service dog, I jumped at the chance. The website seemed legit; much more than some. The website was: http://www.USAServiceDogs.org. It was not cheap to register, and I was called for an “interview”. I also suffer from a medical diagnosis of Anxiety Disorder, which can be very disabling at times. So, to say that everyone who has applied and been registered for an Emotional Support dog is abusing the Disabilities Act (ADA) is very painful for me to hear. Dodie IS my emotional support. She knows when I am weak and do not feel good. When I have an anxiety attack in public, she has learned to recognize it before I do, and she will crawl up my leg to warn me. Now, I find out I have been mistakenly breaking the law. Wow! What a punch in the gut.

  12. Ima Reader Posted on 06.10.2017

    Thanks for the very good article. It’s one thing to know the limitations on emotional support dogs and another to confront people who abuse the law. I guess a comment like “Did you know that only verified service animals are allowed here, not support dogs?” might do the trick…but I’m not hopeful.

  13. Vickie Posted on 06.10.2017

    Great article! I live in Ohio so is there a list of legal trainer’s or classes for training a dog to be a therapy dog? Thanks for your help!

  14. Mary Barroe Posted on 06.10.2017

    I agree with you 100 percent. It brings to mind the recent thing that happened in an airplane with a “support dog”. The man that brought that 60 lb dog on as a support animal and then it bit a man savagely in the face, had no business being there. You must have control over your animal at all times and this was clearly not the case. According to witnesses the only thing the bitten man was doing was trying to get to his window seat. Needless to say they removed thhe man and dog from the plane, put him on another plane and the dog went into a crate. A very bad situation.

  15. Al Boeck Posted on 06.10.2017

    Excellent article! As former dog trainer, we see way too much abuse of the “Service Dog” designation. Just the fact that one can order vests, cards, etc. on the internet does not a service dog make. You should NOT be able to order these materials on line. Service dogs need to be trained and tested by authorized organizations!

  16. Tink Mercado Posted on 06.10.2017

    Thank you very much for this clarification. Personally I would rather have dogs in restaurants and stores than children. However, those people who misuse the classifications will eventually make it more difficult for those who legitimately need the help of those animals. I can’t forgive that kind of selfishness.

  17. samantha Posted on 06.10.2017

    That was an awesome post. I also travel with my dogs, Maddox and Lucy, in our van full time and although sometimes we find ourselves not being able to do certain things with the dogs, like going on a trail or eating at a restaurant, we have never felt limited or hindered on our trip because of our dogs.

  18. RivahDog Posted on 06.10.2017

    I have a service dog that also works as a therapy dog. I also have just a therapy dog. That was a great explanation of the differences between the classifications. Thank you.

  19. Ty Mummey Posted on 06.10.2017

    Very good read thanks for the information I take my dog everywhere with me he behaves with people with great respect !