Fake service dog trend must be stopped: one victim's story

The victim, who was not seriously injured, in a happier moment

That’s my precious pup Lupita. As I recounted in a breathless, adrenalized Facebook post last night, she was attacked with no provocation by a German Shepherd on Austin’s Ladybird Lake hike and bike trail yesterday evening. It took all my strength to get the shepherd, which had its jaws clamped on Lupita’s back, off of her. Once Lupita got free, she collapsed and couldn’t use her legs. For a few terrifying seconds I thought my dog could have been paralyzed from a serious injury, or even mortally wounded. Honestly, I’ve been through some pretty bad shit, but I can’t think of a time when I was more traumatized in the moment. 

Luckily, after a few more scary seconds, Lupita got to her feet, and though she was scared, she seemed (and still seems) none the worse for wear. Despite the fact that I saw the German Shepherd sink its jaws into her several times, Lupita had no puncture wounds. I believe this is because the shepherd was trying to take such a big bite out of her that the force was spread over a wide area. If this dog had gone for a leg, an ear or Lupita’s head and face, it would have been a bloody—and possibly truly life threatening—mess. But as it was, once I outwardly regained my composure and continued on our walk as if nothing had happened, Lupita got over it. But inwardly, I did not really regain my composure—I was pretty wigged out for several hours. 

The reason I bring this up is because I now understand my little scary incident is part of a growing problem: the misrepresentation of pet dogs as service animals by selfish people who want to skirt the rules and bring their dogs into places where other pets aren’t allowed. Because, you see, the German Shepherd that attacked my dog was wearing a phony “service dog” vest.

I knew this was no true service dog just before the attack happened. Or, at least, I was coming to that realization. I noticed the vest on the dog just as I registered that the dog’s owner, who was in a mobility chair, was clearly concerned about how her dog would react as I walked by with Lupita (and Louis, her Boston Terrier boyfriend, whom we are dog-sitting). The lady pulled her dog up short and started saying the stupid things clueless dog owners say in those situations, which all essentially translate to, “I want you to ignore that approaching dog that I have stopped us to stare at and am reacting to with great anxiety.” (The stupid owners think their dogs listen to their words; meanwhile their anxious body language is saying “Danger!”)

In the same brief moment, I saw the “service dog” vest and the gears in my brain started turning, forming the thought, “Something’s up. No one needs to worry about how their true service dog will react in the presence of other dogs.” As we were attempting to walk by the lady and her dog, I saw in a glimpse that the dog’s vest was in fact a cheap-looking thing emblazoned with hot pink “Service Dog” lettering. All of this went through my mind in a split second. And then the attack started. 

I’m not sure anything would have changed had the dog not been wearing the vest, but I do know for sure that the vest gave me pause for a split second (just until the lady went into her “don’t attack the dog I am fixating on” act). I can easily see how this misdirection could lull someone into a false sense of security that would have a material effect on whether an attack happened or not. 

As I recounted the story to my sister, who works for the Veterans Administration, she mentioned that her agency is having more and more problems stemming from victims of PTSD who want to be able to take their pet companions where only true service dogs are allowed. Then, this morning, I did a search; by the time I had typed in, “P-H-O-N-Y  S-E-R…” Google was returning thousands of hits for “phony service dogs.”

Turns out, it is against federal law to misrepresent a dog as a service dog. Problem is, the law is toothless and virtually unenforceable. And according to Service Dog Central, fake service dog credentials are widely available. In fact, if someone attempts to show you their service dog’s certification, it’s almost a sure bet that it’s phony, because owners of true service dogs aren’t required by law to carry any special certification or info that otherwise verifies their dog as a true service dog. And the issue is by and large moot with a true service dog, because a true service dog’s behavior never gives anyone reason to question its legitimacy. 

It’s a mess and it’s liable to get better before it gets worse. There are legitimate privacy concerns about buttonholing someone to ask for credentials just because they are with a service dog. So it’s not a problem with an easy answer. But my eyes are opened. 

A true service dog performs a service or task that helps a person with a disability adapt and function in daily living. And a true service dog is born with the right temperment and goes through months of very, very extensive—and expensive—training. People who slap those phony service dog vests on their companion animals are doing real harm to the owners of true service dogs—and everyone else.

As a non-funny ironic postscript, I’ll link to this LA Times article: Businesses say fake service dogs are a growing problem. Your results may vary, but for me the first ad embedded in the body of the article was for a company selling fake service dog vests.

PPS: I was going to use the phrase “one near-victim’s story” for the title of this post, but screw that: my dog may not have been seriously hurt, but she and I were both victims. No one should have to go through that on their afternoon walk.