So when did it become OK to pretend to be disabled?

So last night one of the members of a Facebook group that I belong to posted that she was going to a time-share for a holiday and had realized that dogs weren’t allowed. So she was thinking of “certifying” her pet dog as a service dog so that she could take it with her.

Now, I’ll give this person full credit; because when I pointed out how offensive that is, and why, she took full responsibility and apologized.

However, the post is still running with others making similar suggestions for alternative ways of getting round the rules.

Which brings me to my question: When did it become OK to pretend to be disabled?

I am a service dog (SD) handler. I owner/private train my dog which is allowed under the law in Ontario, Canada where I live. As it is in the US, where the FB poster I refer to above was located.

However, to be clear, what I say next is about Ontario, Canada.

To use a service dog here I must be disabled. I don’t get to decide that by myself. My healthcare provider has to believe it and be prepared to stake their professional career on it by writing a letter, on their letterhead, which I must carry with me saying so. Not only must I be disabled, but that letter from my doctor must also state that a service dog would help me with my disabilities. (For those that are interested the law concerned is the AODA).

Then we come to the dog. I am privileged. In Ontario I am allowed to owner/private train my dog and have the same public access rights with them as somebody who obtains their service dog through a program. Handlers in other provinces are not so fortunate and I’ll come back to why I believe that to be a problem in a different post.

However, that means that I am responsible for all of my dogs training and behaviours at all times. The standards expected of a Service Dog are incredibly high. We start with basic obedience; but until a dog is house trained nothing else much matters, so potty on command is my first priority.

Basic obedience through to advanced obedience is just normal behaviour expected of a service dog. But think about it. Obedience trials are usually run in a controlled environment: a show ring. Service Dogs have to be obedient in every scenario that their handler could ever be in.

That means our work places, shopping malls, movie theatres, restaurants, fairs, schools, universities, camp sites, hospitals (!!), doctors clinics and waiting rooms, festivals, concerts, theatres, gyms, parades…. and the list continues….

So we train obedience and then we train generalization which means that the dog has to be obedient in all settings. We add duration, distance and distraction to everything.

Our dogs have to be able to hold a down while kids are throwing toys around or bouncing balls at them. They have to be able to continue working while people are talking to them, petting them and just generally distracting them from their job. To focus on us while bacon is sizzling on the BBQ above their head….

In Ontario Handlers with Service Dogs in Training  (SDiT) don’t have public access rights so much of this training has to be done in pet friendly locations. So now we’re dealing with out of control pet dogs. Dogs barking and lunging at mine, or just wanting to play. My dog has to be trained to ignore all of this and focus on me.

OK, so now I have a well-behaved dog in a pet friendly location; well, that’s just a magnet for petting. Now we work on training my dog to ignore people as well.  Not to take treats from anybody but me, or only with my permission. Not to eat or drink anything off of the floor ever!

That one skill alone has saved many a Service Dog’s life! Our dogs go in places where dogs don’t usually go. That means that they are not safe places for them at all times. A Service Dog handler lost her dog a while back because anti-freeze had been spilled in a store and she missed the fact that her dog drank it. It died!

We have to train our dog to wear a vest, harness, back pack, head collar, flat collar, slip collar…. a wide variety of working equipment depending on our needs, both physically and what works best for the dog. These change as we work through training and also depend on our disabilities. I don’t need to use a head collar on Kai. I currently choose to because he associates it with work.

Depending on weather and the places we need to be with our dogs we may need to train the dog to wear boots, eye protection or ear protection.

I personally train my dog to work completely off leash, because for my needs at home and work he has to be off leash most of the time. But then we come to being out and about in public and by law he must be leashed, unless he’s actively doing a task, so we now retrain everything and adapt to my using a hands free leash as well. Also a normal leash in case somebody else has to handle him in an emergency.

If possible owner/private trainer/handlers will often have their dog take the Canadian Kennel Club Canine Good Neighbour test. This is a good baseline for starting public access work in non pet friendly places.

As I live on the border with the US Kai was actually tested by the American Kennel Club and has passed the Canine Good Citizen, Canine Good Citizen Advanced, Canine Good Citizen Urban and the UKC SPOT tests.

So then we start working on public access in places where dogs don’t usually go. Small trips that are just for training. Grocery stores – proof him around food and the dog toys. Get him used to working behind/beside a cart. Tuck in close. Slowly building up to a ‘normal’ shopping trip; whatever that may look like. For me, it’s usually early morning. The risk of exposure to allergens is lower then for me as there are less people.

By now you’re probably getting the idea that training a service dog takes hundreds, thousands of hours of training. But at this point we haven’t even discussed training him to help with my disabilities.

Task training.

Some dogs have a natural alert to things such as seizures. However, that isn’t considered a task. If you’re lucky enough to have a dog that naturally alerts then we now train that alert into a task so that it is consistently reliable. The rule of thumb is 99/100 accurate alerts! Kai naturally alerts to my asthma and is starting to naturally alert to anaphylaxis (Neither of which will I be exposing myself to train into formal tasks).

For most of us we’re training response tasks. Either a response to something that our body does, that we do, or that somebody else does. So we might train a diabetic response/alert through the use of saliva samples, or guide work for those of us that have sight/balance difficulties or brain fog days.

Kai’s first priority is sound alert. I’m deaf. I use a specific ring on my cell phone, a distinctive alarm and have the LED flash. My home phone is amplified and flashes, rather than rings. My doorbell makes my lights flash – there is no actual bell

Kai is trained to tell me about all of these.

Some of them he simply fetches the source of the sound (like my cell phone); others he takes me to the source of the sound.

In my car, he sits on the front seat (harnessed in) so that he can show me the direction of emergency vehicles by turning his face and staring in the correct direction. Out and about he tells me about people coming up behind me, or that are calling to me, vehicles moving behind me…

As I have a number of other medical conditions Kai is also trained to respond to my breathing and remind me to take my medications. He can tell that my breathing is worsening several minutes before I really feel it. By taking medication earlier I can usually prevent more serious problems.

I have a lot of pain. Kai has been taught to put his weight on the pain points as it helps me. It helps a lot. It’s like having a warm weighted blanket with me at all times. However, I have to deal with the fact that when he does this at a venue, such as a concert, it looks like I have a poorly behaved dog on my knee rather than the reality which is that without him doing it, I’d have to leave and go home as the pain is unbearable.

I have issues with balance so Kai picks things up for me. As a result my risk of falls is much less. I break fewer bones.

Then comes the fun part – our dogs are trained to be intelligently disobedient! Yes, you read that right! Disobedient. So we spend hours training obedience to allow them to be disobedient?

Yes, but only in certain circumstances. So for example, if I have Kai in a down stay in the kitchen while I’m cooking he can leave to get the phone for me when it ‘rings’. He’s being disobedient to the down stay but obedient to his task training. He’s making an intelligent choice as to which is more important.

I could go on about training and Kai’s tasks for a lot longer…… I have a lot more medical problems that he helps me with.

My point though is this: to look at me I look just fine. I’m a member of this community of handlers that have invisible disabilities.

And somehow because we exist it seems to have made it OK for people to pretend to be disabled.

I don’t understand it.

I love Kai. Each and every day he helps me. But having a service dog is not easy. It’s like having a toddler permanently. Has he pottied? Do I have the equipment I need for him? What’s my backup plan if he’s having an off day today (He is a living being and not perfect)? Am I ready to deal with the people trying to pet him or distract him today? Do I have the energy to educate people today?

So, yes, I am privileged in that I get to take my dog with me everywhere that I go (Except for places that you can’t go in street clothes, or when I can’t handle him myself). But to have that right I take on a lot of responsibility. I am responsible for his behaviour. If he behaves inappropriately in anyway, I correct the behaviour or we leave. We retrain and in some cases we have to make the gut wrenching decision to wash out our dogs.

I had to do that with my first Service Dog: Topaz. It broke my heart. After almost 2 years we hit an issue that we couldn’t train through. She became protective of me. Unfortunately a 90lb German Shepherd that won’t let anybody near her handler is not often OK as a service dog.

She wasn’t aggressive. She simply refused to let you near me by placing herself between us and moving to make sure that you stayed away. I was hers and she was going to take care of me.

For some handlers this would be an appropriate task. People with combat and non combat PTSD often train their dogs to create space around them in this way. However, I work in a University and spend a lot of time with young children. It wasn’t OK for me, and my life, as people saw her as aggressive due to her breed and stance.

Thankfully I work with an awesome dog trainer in Michigan who was able to help redirect this and help me find the right home for her. Topaz is now working on a farm having the time of her life. I guarantee you that those farm animals will never be hurt by a predator while she’s on duty!

Washing out a dog is not easy. Starting all over again with Kai wasn’t easy.

Kai is still very young.

While not required, I had a MI professional dog trainer,  that I didn’t know, evaluate us using their version of the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test (The international test used by programs to state that their dogs are ready to be placed with their handlers).

I anticipated us identifying some areas that we’d need to work on as while I’d worked on all of the requirements with Kai I’d never put it all together before and we did the test in a completely unfamiliar mall.

He rocked it! We passed!

Despite this, as he is so young still I’m still building up his training and adding more distance, duration and distractions. The training will never stop.

But to come back to my question – are you getting it yet

When people say “just go online and certify your dog as a Service Dog”.

It’s offensive.

It’s mocking me.

  1. There are no online registries that are legitimate. They are all scams. You don’t even know, or care, enough about the law to know that!
  2. Your dog may be well behaved; but there is still a huge difference between a well-behaved pet and a service dog.

Do you know without a shadow of a doubt what your dog will do if another dog barks and lunges at your dog?

I do.

Do you know that your dog will not eat or drink anything without permission?

I do; because if I don’t my dog could die.

Would you borrow a wheelchair and pretend to need it simply to get boarded first on a flight?

I doubt it.

So why, then, is it OK to pretend to be disabled so that you can take your pet anywhere that you feel like?

When you pretend that your dog is a service dog, and it isn’t, you are doing two things:

1. You are putting every legitimate service dog team out there at risk.

They are at increased risk of their dog being attacked either aggressively, or even just in play, by your dog. Yes, we train our dogs to be able to deal with this. But they are living beings. As a result, your ‘friendly’ dog could be the one dog too many that came on to a Service Dog; the handler then couldn’t retrain the dog to ignore dogs after that when it was working and had to wash the dog. Thousands of hours of training thrown away because you had to take your pet dog somewhere!

Watch two Service Dog teams cross paths. Unless they already know each other they will keep space between the dogs. They will have them greet on terms that the handlers know is best for their dog; that is if they feel that it is appropriate for them to greet at all. They will support their dog in ignoring the other dog completely.

You also make our access rights more complicated by presenting the scam registration paperwork.

Legally, in Ontario service dogs are not certified.

Their very behaviour tells you if they are a service dog. If it isn’t obvious then a business can ask the handler for their doctor’s letter confirming their disability and need of a service dog.

If the dog isn’t behaving appropriately, and the handler isn’t effectively addressing the issue,  the business can legally, and should, ask the handler to remove the dog and come back another time when the dog is behaving appropriately.

2. To have a Service Dog you must be disabled. So when you pretend that your dog is a Service Dog you are faking a disability. That is NOT OK. That is offensive to me. It hurts me.

I’ve spent my entire life living with a variety of disabilities.

I’m not looking for pity.

I’m not looking for praise.

I simply want to get on with my life, with whatever support I need to do that.

In my case, at this point in my life, part of those supports is a Service Dog.

So the next time that you think it, or that you hear somebody else suggest: “Just say that your dog is a  service dog so that you can take it anywhere.”



You are saying that it’s OK to pretend to be disabled.

You are saying that our disabilities are so meaningless to you, often because you can’t see them, that pretending to have them is OK.

Simply to take your pet with you? 

If you really feel that that is OK then I invite you to come and spend a day with me.

Live my life for just 24 hours.

Live with the restrictions that I have on my life.

I guarantee that you’d see the world differently as a result.

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