How to Spot a Fake Service Dog

Do you know how to spot a fake service dog from a real one? It can be difficult to distinguish between the two, especially if you’re not familiar with the laws and regulations surrounding service animals. There are a lot of common misconceptions about what constitutes a “real” service dog which can make it hard to tell if a dog is legitimately performing a service or not.

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Service dogs aren’t always as obvious as a trained service dog for a blind person

It’s easy to mistake a real service animal for a pet dog if you’re unaccustomed to the different types of legitimate service animals and their respective duties. Having a more thorough understanding of what exactly a service dog does can help you identify whether or not a given dog is legitimate.

While guide dogs are the most commonly known, many service dogs help people with a wide variety of disabilities. The handler’s disability can include but isn’t limited to, people with mental illness, hearing impairments, diabetes, seizure disorders, and other invisible disabilities.

My dog? She alerts me about 12 hours in advance of one of my debilitating migraines and also has let me know of oncoming seizures from a new migraine preventative medication I had to try. Thank goodness I was able to quit that medication and that my assistance animal was able to let me know about it and get me into a safe location in plenty of time.

What is a service dog?

What is a service dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is defined as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” This means that a service animal must be trained to perform a specific task that assists its owner with a disability.

These tasks can range from providing physical support and stability to aiding in anxiety attacks or flashbacks from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Service dogs can also be trained to alert their owners to the presence of allergens, alert to an oncoming seizure, or provide deep pressure therapy during times of high stress.

Service dogs are protected under federal law, allowing them access to public places that typically do not allow animals. The ADA requires that businesses make “reasonable accommodations” for service dogs, which is why you’ll see service dogs in places like grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, and even airplanes.

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How is it different from an emotional support dog?

Although similar, an emotional support dog is not the same as a service dog. These dogs are typically pets that provide companionship and comfort to their owners. People with conditions such as anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disabilities use ESAs for emotional support.

Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not required to have any specific training and aren’t afforded the same legal protections. This means that they can’t access public places that don’t allow animals. The only exception to this is the Fair Housing Act, which prevents housing providers from denying disabled people the right to live with their assistance animals.

Do they have to be registered?

You might be surprised to learn that there is no national registry for service animals. The ADA does not require any kind of certifications or licensing for service animals. Anyone trying to tell you otherwise is likely a scammer.

Many companies will claim to offer “registration” for service animals, but this is unnecessary and does not hold any legal weight. The popularity of these services has made it even more difficult to distinguish between real and fake service animals.

The only requirements a service dog must adhere to are local vaccination and licensing policies that apply to all dogs via local laws. It is not legal for a city or state to have additional registration requirements for service dogs.


Are service dogs supposed to wear a vest?

It’s a common misconception that service dogs are required to wear a vest or other identifiers. In reality, no law requires this and many people choose not to have their dogs wear one.

That being said, a lot of people do choose to have their dogs wear a vest because it can help signal that the dog is working. It can also help prevent people from asking too many questions or trying to pet the dog while it’s working.

Do service dogs need identification cards?

Similar to vests, there aren’t any laws dictating that service dogs must carry an identification card. However, many people choose to get them for the same reasons they might get a service dog vest.

An ID card can help show that the dog is a legitimate service dog, which can help prevent hassles from businesses or other people.

how can you tell if a service dog is real?

Can you ask someone if their service dog is real?

If a dog enters your business or workplace, you are legally allowed to ask the owner two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

You cannot inquire about the person’s disability, ask for medical documentation, or require that the dog demonstrate its task.

What breeds cannot be service dogs?

Believe it or not, there are no breed restrictions for service dogs in the United States. This means that any breed of dog, from small dogs like a Chihuahua to a massive Newfoundland, has the potential to be a service dog.

Even though some breeds of dogs are banned in certain areas, these breeds are still protected under the law when used as service animals. This means that business owners cannot refuse entry to a service dog based on their breed or appearance.

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The most important factor in determining if a dog can be a service animal is not its breed, but rather its individual temperament and training. A well-behaved, calm dog of any breed has the potential to be a great service animal, while a poorly-behaved dog of any breed is likely not suited for the job.

How to spot a fake service dog from a real service dog

The best way to tell if a service dog is one of the actual service dogs is to observe its behavior. A well-trained service dog will be calm and focused on its work, even in a busy or distracting environment. It will also respond quickly and obediently to commands from its handler. That is a minimum standard that all service dog handlers should be able to control. After all, it takes at least two years of training to fully train a pooch for disabled individuals.

Basic bad behavior from an untrained dog

Remember that real service dogs must have extensive training and socialization to remain on task in public places. Fraudulent service dogs will often exhibit disruptive or unruly behaviors that are inappropriate for a working dog.

Basic disruptive behavior like:

Has Indoor “Accidents”

A dog that does its business indoors is a pretty clear sign it has not been properly trained. Service dogs are only allowed to relieve themselves on command and in a designated outdoor area.


A fake service dog might show aggression towards people or other animals. Things like growling, lunging, or snapping are good indicators that the dog is not well-suited to work in public.

No Leash

A well-trained service dog will always be on a leash, except in specific circumstances where the handler has given the command for the dog to be off-leash.

Pulling on the Leash

A service dog should never pull on its leash, except in specific circumstances where the handler has given the command for the dog to do so.


dog jumping up on a human

If you encounter a dog that’s jumping on people, it’s a good bet that it’s not a service dog. Service dogs are trained to keep all four paws on the ground at all times.


While some service dogs use barking to alert their handlers, excessive barking is a sign of poor training. A dog that can’t control its barking is likely to be disruptive and distracting in public.

Sniffing Everything

A service dog’s primary job is to assist its handler, not to stop and smell everything in its path. If you see a dog that is spending more time sniffing things than paying attention to its handler, it’s probably not a real service dog.

Steals Food

Service dogs are trained to resist the temptation of food so that they can focus on their work. If you see a dog stealing food, it’s likely not a legitimate working dog.

Looks Nervous

a dog that looks nervous isn't a service dog

Service dogs need to be unphased by their environment. If they’re constantly looking around or seem nervous, it’s a sign that they’re not properly trained or ready for public access.


Similar to barking, whining can sometimes be an alert behavior for service dogs. However, excessive whining is a sign of poor training and can be disruptive in public places.

Too Young

It is recommended that service dogs be at least 18 months old before performing their duties in public. This is because young dogs or puppies are subject to behavior issues that can interfere with their work, due to their age and inexperience. It is unlikely that a puppy is a legitimate service animal.

Seeks Attention

A service dog should be focused on its handler and not be seeking attention from other people. If you see a dog that is approaching people for sniffs or pets, it is not a true service dog.

Rides inside a Shopping Cart

a service dog doesn't Ride inside a Shopping Cart

You can safely assume any dog riding in a shopping cart at your local grocery store or Target is a fake service animal. The ADA does not permit service dogs to ride inside shopping carts at any time.

Why is it bad to have fake service animals accepted where real service dogs are?

Allowing untrained dogs into a public place can have serious consequences. It can create a dangerous situation for both pet owners and the general public. A fake service dog that is not properly trained can behave aggressively or disruptively, which can pose a serious safety hazard.

When untrained dogs are allowed into businesses or public spaces, they often create messes, bark excessively, or otherwise disturb the peace. This can be a major annoyance for people who are trying to carry on with their business.

Pet dogs can make for disruption in training and cause a fear of other dogs

For people who are actively training a service dog, the presence of a pet dog can be very disruptive. It could cause the service dog to lose focus and make it difficult to complete its service tasks. This could have devastating effects on people who rely on their service dogs for assistance.

Bringing an aggressive or reactive pet dog into a public setting could cause a service dog to become fearful of other dogs. This could jeopardize the safety of its handler and require the animal to be removed from service.

fake service dogs

Allowing fake service dogs also takes away from the credibility of real service dogs and their handlers. When business owners and the general public see fake service dogs, it can make them less likely to believe that a real service dog is truly needed. This can create serious obstacles for people who rely on service animals to assist them in their daily lives.

Why do people fake a service dog?

Some people fake a service dog because they want to bring their canine companions into places where they aren’t typically allowed, such as restaurants or stores. Others just might not be aware they’re committing service dog fraud or be confused about emotional support animal laws.

Another common reason is that many disabled people legitimately need a service dog but find it financially inaccessible. Service dogs can cost thousands of dollars to train and purchase, not to mention medical care. This can be a major burden for people who are already struggling financially, leaving them few options but to use their pet as a service animal.

What are the penalties for faking a service dog?

What are the penalties for faking a service dog?

Penalties for faking a service dog can vary depending on the state in which you live. In some states, it is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine or could result in jail time.

What do you do if you see a fake service dog?

If you see a dog that you suspect is not a true service dog, it’s important to resist the temptation to approach the owner and ask questions. This can be disruptive and may even escalate the situation.

The best thing to do is to calmly move away from the situation and notify a business manager or security guard. They will be able to handle the situation in a way that is respectful of both the customer and the business.

Spotting a fake service dog can be tricky

Service dogs play a vital role in the lives of many disabled people and it’s important to be able to identify them. Not every service animal looks like a guide dog and there are lots of disabilities that are invisible but require an assistance dog.

Remember that a real service dog will be calm, focused on its job, and well-behaved in public. A fraudulent service dog will typically have obvious behavioral issues that its owner might not be able to manage.

how to spot a fake service dog

When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and give the benefit of the doubt to a real service dog team. If you’re certain that a dog is not a legitimate service animal, the best thing to do is to calmly notify business management and let them handle it.

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