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Legitimate Service Dog Certification 2023: Can You Trust It?

Kate Barrington

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Medically reviewed by Ramakrishnan, G., Ph.D

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Fake Service Dog Certification 2021

Service dogs play an important role in the lives of individuals with disabilities, performing a wide variety of tasks to help the individual maintain their independence and improve their quality of life. An emotional support dog is another animal entirely. Emotional support animals[1] (ESA) provide comfort and companionship, but they generally do not receive any special training. 

While service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act[2] (ADA) and receive hundreds of hours of training, emotional support animals do not have any special certifications. Unfortunately, some pet owners try to pass their pets off as service animals in order to bring them into pet-free areas or to avoid paying pet housing fees. 

Does Service Dog Certification Really Exist?

Service dogs go through extensive training to perform their roles, but there is no such thing as service dog registration, nor is there an official database of service animals. Unfortunately, fake service dog registries do exist and many pet owners fall victim to the scam, believing they can certify their pet as a service animal to skirt the rules. 

There are a number of websites online that sell service dog certifications but they are in no way legitimate. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dog owners are not required to carry any kind of certification and businesses are prohibited from asking for one. Simply obtaining a certificate online and putting a service dog vest on your dog is not enough to make him a real service animal. 

What Is A Service Dog?

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks. They can be used to guide people who are blind, alert people who are deaf, or calm people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can also help remind an individual to take medications, go for help in the event of a seizure, or assist with various daily tasks. The main thing to remember is that service dogs are working animals and not pets. 

Emotional support animals serve an important role of their own, but it is very different from the role played by professionally trained service dogs. Emotional support animals provide support through companionship and can help ease mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and phobias. In order for a pet to be legally considered an emotional support animal, it must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person diagnosed with a mental illness. 

What Do the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Say?

According to the ADA[3], a service dog is, “Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” 

Here are some of the tasks a real service dog might be trained to perform:

  • Opening and closing doors or retrieving objects for individuals with mobility issues
  • Guiding individuals who are visually impaired
  • Alerting people with hearing impairments to auditory signals
  • Providing stability for individuals who struggle with balance
  • Alerting to oncoming seizures and obtaining help for individuals with epilepsy
  • Reminding individuals to take their medications
  • Detecting a drop in insulin levels for diabetic individuals
  • Alerting to the oncoming attack of PTSD symptoms

Service dog training is not limited to guiding the blind, as should now be abundantly clear. While many individually trained service dogs provide assistance in the completion of daily tasks, psychiatric service dogs often provide companionship and support. In this way, the role of psychiatric service dogs overlaps to some degree with the role of an emotional support animal. 

Under Title II and TItle III of the ADA[4], emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not considered service animals. While an emotional support dog’s mere presence may provide mental and emotional support, their work must be directly related to the individual’s disability for it to qualify as a legitimate service dog. Simply having a doctor’s note stating the individual’s need for an emotional support animal doesn’t turn the animal into a service animal. 

The ADA does not have specific obedience requirements for service animals, but it must be well-behaved in public. In addition to being housebroken, the animal should be able to follow basic obedience commands such as:

  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Come
  • Down
  • Leave It
  • Heel
  • Look

Again, service dog training should be catered to the individual’s disability. They are trained to take a specific action when required to assist an individual with their disability. 

How to Spot a Fake Service Dog?

The ADA prohibits businesses and employers from asking too many questions about an individual’s disability or their need for a service dog which makes it easy for pet owners to pass companion pets off as service animals. In some states, the local government has passed laws designed to punish pet owners who dishonestly claim their pet is a service animal. The consequences of such dishonesty range from fines to criminal charges. 

So, how do you spot a fake service dog? First and foremost, remember that the ADA does not require a person with a disability to obtain any form of license or certification for service dogs. 

While service dogs do go through rigorous training, they are not required to be trained by a professional organization. There are certainly organizations that provide this kind of training, but the costs can be prohibitive for many service dog handlers. Consequently, the ADA allows service animals to be trained directly by their handler for both basic obedience training and for specific task training. 

Here are some signs a service dog may be a fake: 

  • The dog is being carried or pushed in a cart
  • The dog is not on a leash or has poor leash etiquette
  • The dog is barking or whining
  • The dog is distracted by its environment 
  • The dog looks nervous or seeks attention from people
  • The dog shows signs of aggression

Fake service dogs are becoming increasingly more common as more and more pet owners try to pass their pet dogs off as service animals. Unfortunately, the rise in fake service dogs has created some challenges for the individuals who really need service animals. Spam service dog companies are on the rise and people who need actual service dogs can fall victim to the scam. Just know that legitimate service dog teams will never offer any kind of certification or registry. 

How Are Service Dogs Trained? 

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The truth is, there is no quick or easy way to train a service animal. Training an assistance animal takes a minimum of 120 hours plus at least 30 hours of practice in public. Not only does the dog need basic obedience training, but it must be trained to perform specific tasks consistently and without prompting. How an assistance animal is trained is best determined by the individual in consideration of his or her needs. 

Psychiatric service dogs are generally best trained by their owner because they need to form a strong bond with the handler to develop an effective method for mitigating symptoms. Spending time with the handler enables the dog to learn to recognize departures from the individual’s base state. Even so, professional service animal trainers recommend owner-trainers seek help from a professional trainer. 

Not all dogs are cut out to be service animals. In some cases, a dog may be too shy or reactive to other dogs and people. In some cases where service dogs fail out of their training they are better suited to becoming emotional support dogs. 

Here are some qualities that makes a good service dog candidate:

  • Confident and self-assured in public
  • Calm and steady temperament
  • Easy-going and eager to make friends
  • Not aggressive or reactive around other dogs
  • High food drive (for training purposes)

A service dog helps perform a wide variety of tasks specific to their individual handler. On top of these skills, a trained service dog should meet the following behavioral standards in public:

  • No aggressive behavior toward people or other dogs
  • No soliciting food or attention from other people
  • Walking calmly on a leash, staying focused on the handler
  • No urinating or defecating indoors
  • No sniffing around or barking/vocalizing in public

When it comes to federal and state laws regarding service animals, the handler is legally liable for damage incurred by a service animal. This is one of the many reasons adequate training is so important for individuals who require service animals. 

What Breeds Make Good Service Dogs?

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not specify any breeds that should or should not become service animals. Assistance animals come in all sizes, though their size should be appropriate to the specific tasks they are being trained to perform. For example, a small dog may be appropriate for providing emotional support or hearing assistance but might not be the best choice to pull a wheelchair. 

Some of the best breeds for mobility assistance include larger breeds like Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Danes, and St. Bernards. Poodles are a versatile option because they come in three different sizes – toy, miniature, and standard. Guide dogs are typically larger, people-friendly breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs. In the end, breed doesn’t matter as much as the dog’s temperament and training.  

Where To Find a Service Dog?

Any breed of dog can become a service dog with the proper training. If you find yourself in need of a specially trained service dog, you have two options. The first is to adopt a trained service dog from a reputable organization and the second is to train your own dog to perform the required tasks. Many people who require service dogs prefer the former option because training a service dog yourself can take years. 

Before you set out in search of a service dog, talk to your doctor. To qualify for a service animal, a person with a disability needs to obtain written documentation of the need from a licensed medical professional. The note should state that you are being treated for a physical or psychiatric disability that requires assistance from a service animal. 

Once you have obtained the necessary documentation, you can start looking for organizations that train service dogs. These organizations train service animals for a variety of general tasks but will also train the dog to perform tasks specific to the new handler’s disability. 

Hearing dogs are trained to assist deaf and hearing-impaired individuals while seeing-eye dogs, or guide dogs, are trained to lead the blind and visually impaired. Mobility assistance dogs can be trained to push buttons, retrieve objects, and open doors for mobility-impaired individuals. Psychiatric service dogs can help with tasks related to emotional disability such as providing tactile stimulation during a panic attack or making the handler feel safe in public. 

Final Thought

Standing side by side, you may not be able to tell the difference between a real service animal and an emotional support animal, but you will be able to tell by seeing the two in action. A real service animal is focused on its task and not distracted by its environment. An actual service dog is disciplined and non-reactive, especially around other dogs and people. An emotional support animal, on the other hand, will generally act more like the pet it is. 

If you are considering getting a service animal, take the time to familiarize yourself with the provisions set forth by the ADA and know your rights. Be aware that the ADA does not provide any specific service dog requirements, nor does it register service dogs. Your best bet is to find a reputable organization (generally a charity) that trains service dogs. If that option is too expensive, you can always train your own dog to become an assistance animal. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if a service dog is legit?

It can be tricky, but service dogs are typically well-trained and well-behaved. If the dog is not solely focused on its specific task as related to its owner’s disability, it may not be legit.

Do service dogs need to be certified?

No. Under the ADA, real service dogs are not required to obtain or carry any kind of certification. The organizations that train service dogs have their own processes to determine whether the dog is ready for service.

Can you get a fake service dog certificate?

Yes. There are many websites online that sell fake service dog certificates and pet dog owners can obtain fake service dog vests fairly easily as well.

Is the Service Dog Certification of America legitimate?

No. There is no official database for legitimate service dogs nor are service dog handlers required to obtain or require any sort of certification.

Are emotional support animals allowed on planes?

In recent revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that emotional support animals do not qualify as service animals and will be treated by airlines as pets.

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  1. Gibeault, S. (2021). Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals. [online] American Kennel Club. Available at: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/everything-about-emotional-support-animals/
  2. ‌Ada.gov. (2020). A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. [online] Available at: https://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm
  3. ‌Ada.gov. (2011). ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals. [online] Available at: https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
  4. Adata.org. (2021). Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals | ADA National Network. [online] Available at: https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals
Kate Barrington

Medically reviewed by:

Kate Barrington holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is the published author of several self-help books and nutrition guides. Also an avid dog lover and adoring owner of three cats, Kate’s love for animals has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in pet care and nutrition. Kate holds a certificate in fitness nutrition and enjoys writing about health and wellness trends — she also enjoys crafting original recipes. In addition to her work as a ghostwriter and author, Kate is also a blogger for a number of organic and natural food companies as well as a columnist for several pet magazines.

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