The term "service dog" is used a lot in public these days. What was once an assistance animal for blind or deaf individuals, highly trained service dogs are now helping people with a wide range of disabilities, acting as seizure alert dogs, PTSD service dogs, alerting a handler with diabetes to when his blood sugar dips, and so much more.

However, as an understanding of the broadened range of what a trained service animal can do reaches the general public, and with the important work the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has done to increase public accessibility and privacy for people with service animals, it has become common for people to call their pets service animals even when they don't meet the legal definition.

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A lot of people are interested in calling their pet dogs service animals for reasons that have little to do with mitigating the effects of a disability. Maybe it's so they can bring their pet along on shopping trips, bring them on the plane with them during vacation, or get around housing restrictions for pets. Whatever the reason, claiming your dog is a service animal is no small thing. Those who want to have a dog as a constant companion or a working animal need to be aware of everything that claim entails legally — not to mention how it can effect the reputation of trained service animals everywhere.

Service dog versus therapy dog versus emotional support animal

There can be a lot of confusion about the different titles for dogs, particularly when it comes to public access. However, as Please Don't Pet Me points out, "Differentiating between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals is not a matter of splitting hairs or political correctness. Each of these dogs has a very different job from the others and the terms are not interchangeable."

Service dogs have been trained to perform specific tasks that help mitigate a handler's disability.

A therapy dog provides comfort to people, particularly in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. While therapy dogs receive training on how to handle themselves in public and around the people they're comforting, they are not trained to do specific tasks to help with a disability.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets that provide a high level of comfort to the owner and do not have to have any training.

The only animal that legally can go to any public place the handler goes is a service dog.

ESAs have some additional legal protection under the Fair Housing Act; a person whose doctor has recommended they have an ESA can have their pet living with them, even in housing that has pet restrictions. They also have some protection under the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows a person with documentation to have their pet travel with them. However, an ESA is still a pet, not a service animal, and does not have the same public access as a service animal. In other words, while you can have your ESA living with you in a no-pet apartment, you can't bring your ESA to the grocery store or coffee shop.

The American with Disabilities Act has an excellent FAQ that helps clarify the differences among service dogs, therapy dogs and ESAs. It can be a bit confusing even for those familiar with the territory, so it's easy to imagine the confusion and frustration of business owners or other service providers who have to deal with people who claim a therapy dog or ESA is a service animal.

A working dog helps a vision-impaired handler. A working dog helps a vision-impaired handler. (Photo: Cylonphoto/Shutterstock)

So how do you know if a dog is legally considered a service animal? Ultimately, it's quite simple: A dog is considered a service dog under the law when that dog trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate the handler's disability. It doesn't matter the type of disability the handler has, or whether that disability is physical or psychological.

To be allowed to go everywhere with a handler, not only must a dog be able to do a job, but the dog must also stay under the handler's control at all times. In other words, the dog needs to be leashed or harnessed and has to be able to mind his manners. A significant amount of training goes into a service dog's ability to be polite in public. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners has a standard for the minimum training requirements for public access.

There's no overarching organization that deems a dog a service dog and provides certification as such. If you have a physical or psychological disability, your dog consistently and reliably performs tasks that help you with a disability, and your dog has the obedience training to behave in public, then your dog is legally considered a service dog — no paperwork, special certifications or listing in a registry required.

But as with any system, there are those who play by the rules and those who don't. Many people willingly "certify" their dogs to get the official-looking paperwork that might wave off a questioning business owner. And that's where things can get hairy.

Fake service dogs are a big problem

There has been a public backlash against people who take fake service dogs into public places, and rightfully so. It isn't just about the issue of lying for your own benefit; it's also about the danger the owner is creating for the animal, for other people, and for legitimate service dogs that may find themselves next to an unruly pet.

"Fake service dogs present a problem for legitimate service dog teams in a number of ways," says Erin Kramer, a professional dog trainer and owner of Tug Dogs. "The first and most widespread is that by taking untrained dogs into public spaces and masking them as service dogs, when they do act inappropriately, it makes it more challenging for legitimate service dogs to be welcomed."

For instance, many people put their dogs in shopping carts or allow them to sit on chairs in restaurants. Neither of these activities are allowed for service dogs. Or the owner may allow the dog to go sniff other people, or to seek out attention from strangers or to bark excessively — also behaviors considered unacceptable in trained service dogs. People claiming to have a service animal but who really have an untrained pet with them harm the reputation of legitimate service dogs and make it harder for people with working dogs to gain the respect of business owners, people who grant access to public places, and the public in general.

Service dogs don't sit at the table, unless for a very specific task that requires contact with their handler. People letting their "service dog" sit at the table with them is a sign the dog is probably a pet. Service dogs don't sit at the table, unless it's for a very specific task that requires contact with their handler. When you see people let their dogs sit at the table with them, that's a good indication the dog is probably a pet. (Photo: Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock)

"Illegitimate service dogs often end up unknowingly teaching poor habits to the general public by [handlers] allowing people to pet or interact with their (so called) service dog." Kramer states, "If your dog is not performing a task for you, it's no big deal to have them busy trying to greet strangers. However, when you have an actual service dog who is there to assist you in some way, you need them focused on their job. Service dog handlers already have to deal with the general public attempting to interact with and otherwise distract their dog. When someone has been able to pet and interact with what they believe to be a legitimate service dog, it can be confusing or disturbing when you have to tell them your dog cannot be petted."

Fake service dogs can also cause problems for legitimate service dog-and-handler teams by being reactive or approaching other dogs to play.

"Fake service dogs can create problems while out and about for actual service dogs by reacting negatively, such as lunging, barking, growling, and other inappropriate behavior in confined spaces such as at restaurants and in shops," says Kramer. "If a service dog is having to worry about another dog acting aggressively towards them, they cannot focus on their handler's needs, and that can be downright dangerous."

As a result, service dogs that have undergone years of training may have to be rehabilitated or retired after being attacked by fake service dogs — and such a loss is a significant one to the handler who needs a working dog to navigate the world.

The problems of fake service dogs go way beyond the perception issue. There's also the impact on the well-being of fake service dogs.

Colt Rosensweig writes, "Service dogs are specially trained to deal with things like children racing up to them and invading their space, adults randomly reaching for their heads, shopping carts rattling by inches from their face, and crowds pressing in on them from every direction. These things can stress pet dogs out beyond their threshold. Some pet dogs will shut down in the face of such stress — this is very unpleasant for the dog. But some dogs will be so stressed out that they lash out. This is not only unpleasant for the dog, but dangerous to the dog, owner, and members of the public."

The problem isn't limited to people who propagate the fake service dog myth, but also to websites that claim to register dogs as service animals or ESAs. Not only does this confuse pet owners, who might think they're playing by the rules by registering their animal, but the certificates or identification cards mailed out to pet owners who flash them in public can cause even more confusion.

Are online service animal registries legitimate?

Unfortunately, the reality is most websites that offer registration or certification for service animals or emotional support animals are in it to make money and aren't giving you anything of legal value. Not only is there no official certifying organization for service dogs, you don't even need to carry certification for your service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require service animals to be certified or registered with any company or organization.

Service Dog Central writes, "There is no legitimate service dog certification or registration in the United States. Some programs will certify the dogs they train and test, and some do not. Those certificates are the only ones that actually mean anything, and they only mean anything if you have to go to court and prove your dog is trained. They are not required; they are merely useful documentation for the dog's training, which could be substantiated by other means. You don't need them for public access, or housing, or flying, or anything else."

Some websites offer a doctor's letter for a fee to those who want to be able to have their pet considered an emotional support animal or service animal for various reasons. Others will register the animal in their database and send out identification cards and a certificate so that everything feels official, even if it isn't. Some services will even charge an annual renewal fee to keep the animal registered, or to renew the doctor's letter each year. Ultimately, while it might help you feel more official, registering your animal with one of these registration services doesn't give you any additional legal protection or status for your pet. Still, some owners want that card.

Service Dog Central has a list of scam registration websites, and notes, "Not a single service listed above tests the dogs they certify, register, or ID. They do nothing to verify the dog's training or the owner's disability. All that is required is that the purchaser fill out a form with the information for the certificate and where to mail it, and include payment ranging from $35 to over $200 depending on the package being purchased."

"Quite honestly, the registration of the dog on a website is the lowest of our priorities when we train or provide a service dog," says Kramer. "Putting that goal first is a big mix-up in proprieties. I think focusing too much on how and where to buy a vest or register a dog misses the most important element of the service dog experience: having a dog who can do their job."

Sometimes, having a card as identification to clip on to your dog's vest makes it easier for those training a service dog to navigate public spaces without being hassled by store owners. But sometimes, whipping out that identification at the slightest questioning does more harm than good.

Legally, a business owner can ask only two things: Is your dog a service animal? And what tasks is the dog trained to perform? That's it. Those people presenting the identification to business owners when questioned about their dog unwittingly train the business owner that documentation is available and should be presented. When a legitimate service dog team refuses to show documentation — because legally, they don't have to — the business owner may think that this legitimate team is actually a fake.

Can you train your pet to be a service dog?

Legally, someone can train a dog to be a service animal, but there's a big caveat here: Most pets are not cut out to be service animals. Beyond being trained to perform specific tasks to help mitigate a handler's disability, a service dog needs to have excellent behavior while in public and be calm despite anything happening around them. The world can be a stressful, scary place for a dog — from loud cars to construction noise, to the chaos of a busy store, to children running up, to people trying to get their attention to give them affection or food, to having to experience something new such as riding on a new form of transportation.

Many people pass their dogs off as service dogs simply so they can bring them into stores or on vacation with them. But their presence can cause a wide range of problems.

A service dog needs to have the mental tools to navigate that loud, hectic world for themselves while also paying attention to the needs of the handler and being able to do the tasks they've been trained to do. It's not a job for any pet. Even dogs bred specifically for the temperament of a service dog "fail" service dog training school for various reasons.

So while there may be the option for you to train your dog as a service animal, it's important to realize that your dog likely may not have what it takes to be an effective helper. You also have to realize it takes upward of a year of intense daily training of your dog, and continued training throughout the dog's lifetime to maintain those skills, so it also might be something you as a dog owner don't wish to take on — especially if your only goal is to legally be able to take your pet with you everywhere you go.

Training your dog to be a service dog needs to come from the right place and to happen for the right reasons because it's a serious long-term commitment — and it also affects the reputation of legitimate service dogs everywhere.

How to train your dog to be a (legal) service dog

"There is a lot of confusion out there about what it takes to have a service dog who meets legal requirements and can perform the tasks required of them, or to turn your own dog into a service dog," says Kramer. "With different regional regulations, conflicting internet information, and even many trainers not knowing some of the details, it can be challenging just to figure out how to get started."

If you and a medical professional feel a service dog would benefit you, and you think your pet dog is an ideal candidate, the best place to start is to find a reliable trainer who has experience in training both service dogs and handlers. Not only is it important that the trainer have excellent skills with dogs but because you will be doing practically all of the hands-on training, they need to be good at teaching people as well. The trainer will guide you on thedaily training and how to build up to advanced skills for your dog.

Do your research in finding the right trainer for you. Then set up an evaluation so the trainer can let you know if she thinks your dog will be able to handle the responsibility. Be prepared to hear that your pet should remain a pet. However, if both of you have what it takes to tackle training, then you'll be able to move forward in what will likely be many months, if not a year or two, of daily work.

Kramer gives an overview of what to expect with her program: "We first ensure our clients meet legal requirements by having a doctor's note indicating that in fact they would benefit from the use of a service animal. We then look at the team (handler and dog) to see how they interact, what weaknesses are present, and what tasks need to be trained."

A service dog in training is not yet legally recognized as a service dog. However, some states are more lenient about providing public access to service dogs in training to help teach them how to behave in public. For instance, California allows a person with a disability who is training a service dog, or a licensed trainer to have the dog with him in a public place for training purposes. Check with your city and state to know the laws about public access.

Building your dog's service skills is a long process. "We work toward the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test in the early stages of training, and then public access standards as set by Assistance Dogs International," says Kramer "If, at the end of this rigorous process a client chooses to register with an online resource, they can do so knowing that their dog has met all the requirements and can actually do the job they need to do."

Ultimately the final exam for a service dog is this: Can a service dog perform tasks that help a handler cope with a disability and be with that handler at all times, remaining calm in any public situation? Federal law allows businesses and organizations to remove a service dog that is out of control or that isn't housebroken. Your service dog's training and your abilities as a handler are the real access pass to public places, not some certificate bought online.

"Certifications and ID cards can be faked," Rosensweig writes. "Impeccable behavior can’t be purchased for $50 from an Internet scam site. It can’t be obtained in a day. It takes an incredible amount of time and dedication. People who want to 'take Fluffykins with me everywhere!' are not the kind of people who will put in two years of training to make sure Fluffykins can handle it."

However, if you and your dog can put years into training, then you certainly have the potential to become a legitimate team that can add respect to the reputation of service dogs and handlers everywhere.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.