Real Versus Fake Assistance, Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Animals

Photo Credit: © Kathie Meier

Are the Labrador Retriever guiding a blind person and the miniature pony providing emotional support considered to be the “same animal” in terms of the assistance they are providing, their legal description, and where they are allowed access? Is it possible to know which ones are legitimate and which ones are fraudulently being represented as assistance animals in order to achieve public access or avoid pet-related fees?

Given the increasing numbers of animals used for support, service, therapy, and assistance in public places, answering these questions has become rather complicated. And, even the following legal definitions pertaining to these animal helpers leave a great deal open to interpretation.

Assistance Animal (as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development)

An animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms of effects of a person’s disability. Individuals with a disability may be entitled to keep an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation in housing facilities that otherwise impose restrictions or prohibitions on animals. In order to qualify for such an accommodation, the assistance animal must be necessary to afford the individual an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling or to participate in the housing service or program.

Service Animal: as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for purposes of this definition.  Miniature horses have been added as a specific provision to the ADA. The miniature horse must be housebroken, under the handler’s control, can be accommodated for by the facility, and will not compromise safety regulations.

Service Animal: as defined by the Air Carrier Access Act

Any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal shown by documentation to be necessary for the emotional well-being of a passenger.

Emotional Support Animal, aka ESA: as defined by the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act

An emotional support animal may be an animal of any species, the use of which is supported by a qualified physician, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional on the basis of a disability-related need. An ESA does not have to be trained to perform any particular task. Emotional support animals do no qualify as service animals under the ADA, but they may be permitted as reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act. The Air Carrier Access Act provides specific allowances for emotional support animals traveling on airlines, though documentation may need to be provided. Emotional support animals are not recognized as service animals.

Therapy Animal: as defined by Air Carrier Access Act the AVMA policy, “Animal Assisted Interventions: Definitions”

A therapy animal is a type of animal-assisted intervention in which there is a goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature.

American Veterinary Medical Association Perspective

Earlier this year, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released a report titled, “Assistance Animals: Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud.” Its intended purpose is to guide veterinarians in providing support for their clients with legitimate service or emotional support animals while discouraging other clients from fraudulently representing their pets as service animals.

The document states that fake service dogs are an ever-increasing problem, in large part thanks to the multiple online sources for paperwork and supplies that provide service animal “proof”. As a result, disabled people using legally compliant assistance animals are reporting that they’re now subject to more reluctance and suspicion when entering public places.

According to the AVMA report, “Part of the problem is that the lack of centralized or standardized form of proof that can be used to ascertain an assistance animal’s status makes fraudulent animals difficult to identify. The ADA does not require any standardized training or certification program for service animals, nor does it require the handler to provide any form of documentation stating the necessity for a service animal. Such documentation is considered a barrier or unreasonable burden that could limit access to a service animal. Conversely, people who use ESAs may need to provide documentation stating the need for an ESA, but that documentation can easily be counterfeited.”

What are potential solutions for supporting valid use of assistance animals while deterring the frauds? Some suggestions include cracking down on the availability of materials that provide fraudulent proof of assistance animal status, increasing access for companion animals in housing and public spaces, and reconciling conflicts in federal and state laws.

What assistance animal observations have you made as of late? What solutions do you recommend to weed out the fakers?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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6 Comments on “Real Versus Fake Assistance, Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Animals

  1. Good Lord, you sure hit the nail on the head! My service dog has encountered several “fake” service dogs who attempted to fight. There is a recorded instance of another “service’ dog attacking a seeing eye dog and now the sight dog refuses to work. I am reluctant to take my service dog out in public and stay at home as much as possible. As much as I have heard people say I am lucky to take my dog everywhere,it is no cake walk. I have to be vigilant for the exuberant kids that want to pet them, I have to dodge carts because we are twice as wide as the normal shopper and don’t even get me started on the texting people who don’t look up and trip over the leash! I have had the police called to remove me three times. I have had to leave stores due to aggressive behavior from other “service” dogs and I have had to bear the brunt of verbal abuse from others who did not believe my dog to be legitimate. I DO support some sort of testing for service dogs and accommodations can be made for those that are owner trained and not quite ready for prime time. Think about it. Would people be faking illness and disability if they could not sneak a pet into the theater?

  2. As an owner of a small lodging property I deal with this on a regular basis. By law I am allowed to ask 2 questions. First, is the animal required because of a disability and second, what work has the animal been trained to perform? If they aren’t able to answer yes to these questions, then they are limited to staying in the dog friendly rooms and paying the additional fees required for having their pet with them in the room. If the dog is a true service animal the guest may reserve any room at the property and there are no additional fees.

    It is so very sad to see people abusing the true intent of a service animal which has been trained to provide valuable work and assistance to those in need.

  3. I am a registered Pet Partner therapy team/licensed evaluator/instructor. We have registered Pet Partner teams here who go out to hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, schools and so forth. A lot of people do confuse the therapy and service/assistance dogs and think they are the same since they have a vest on.I encourage our PP teams to use this as a teaching moment to educated the public on the difference. It’s good more of the public are recognizing the value of an assistance/service animal and realize they are not to approach and pet as the animal is working.( I have evaluated two mini horses-one of which is very active in our local area visiting people in various localities.)
    That being said, I did know there was a problem with people faking the service/assistance aspect with their animal. I also belong to our local dog club and know people who travel for shows, etc, who have said they know of fellow competitors who have their show dog on the plane with them as an assistance/service dog so the dog won’t be put in the cargo area of the plane. It is just too easy to purchase “proof” online.
    I agree with a previous comment saying you can sometimes tell if the dog isn’t the real deal by it’s behavior. Even my groomer has commented she has people bring in therapy dogs which she doubts is even true since the dog is of a certain temperament and behavior. Being groomed is stressful to some dogs, granted, but I think the dog would have to be pretty unruly for her to doubt.
    I appreciate your posting the definitions for each type of animal we are talking about. I probably will refer to this when teaching my workshops!! The more information we can get out to the public, the better.
    I don’t know of an easy solution to the fakers going around, but I do know it hurts not only the assistance/service animals, but the therapy animals reputation. It will be hard to find a national, even international solution which defines the visible difference between them. I do appreciate you bringing attention to this subject.

  4. I was in a meeting last spring to which a woman brought a small dog, probably as an ESA. The way that dog showed it was the real deal was by its behavior: it remained quietly relaxed under her chair as the room filled with talking people, some talking about the dog. Any untrained dog would have been either an anxious mess, or all over the place meeting new friends. I watched this from the other side of the room.
    The guy running the meeting claimed the landlord didn’t allow animals in the building. Many of us told him it would be a really bad idea, and a time consuming one, to evict a well behaved service dog, and as I recall it stayed.

  5. I am deaf and have a hearing dog (in training) – True, my Belgian Sheepdog, is good with public access and learning proper alerts. He has gone through local training classes. He earned his community canine title.

    I know a number of folks who share their lives with owner-trained and program-trained service dog. Strangely enough, the owner-trained dog tend to be better behaved and do their duties than the program dogs whose owner has NOT kept up with training.

    Service dogs work in stressful conditions. I saw two large dogs start a fight at a conference. I have seen service dogs who are dog aggressive. The dogs are just reacting to stress.

    I always watch for signs of stress in my dog and try to leave the situation as soon as we can. In some situations, like ceilings falling down, we can’t get out as fast as I would like.

    There are folks who cannot leave home without their service dogs any more than someone can leave without their wheelchair….

    I do not believe dogs need to be certified 1) test sites may be not be accessible. Not everyone can travel to a distant test site.2) it is hard to video a working dog 3) testing may be too expensive. Remember that MANY folks who use service dogs are on the lower end of the economic scale 4) people get nervous during testing 5) testing can be faked

    It is NOT good for folks to have a fake service dog. It makes those who need service dogs look bad. Legally, the business can ask how the dog helps a person, but not the specific reason. They ask a person to remove the dog if the dog is barking or otherwise creating a disturbance. In my case, I tend to walk past the person unless my dog alerts me.

  6. I do believe that any animal requiring special access (hotels, airlines, businesses, transportation) should have completed designated training (CGC at the very least ) before being able to wear a labeled vest. In fact, many of the dogs are more “comfort” animals for seniors or people who may have emotional issues – their presence is their primary “service”. These pets do not compare to the rigorous training CCI dogs undergo to become working service animals & would be unfair to treat them as the same. I am also very concerned about the rush to provide people with PTSD a service dog – while there are several groups it is doubtful that there is any consistent training for the dogs or for vetting those people who want the animal. As a therapist (ret.) my concern is that PTSD should be treated professionally: behavioral management techniques, medication if needed, monitoring of symptoms & capacity to function in society, etc. A dog is not going to be a cure – it may well be a reassurance & a comfort but the person with the dx needs to be able to meet the animal’s needs also. I just am very concerned with the easy access to labelled vests (service dog) for sale in dog catalogs – at the desire to have animals go everywhere with a person ( I myself would prefer that too – wishing many of our establishments were more animal friendly but my preference is a lot different than an actual service need) under the guise of meeting a special & legitimate need, with no proof of either need or training.

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