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Fake service dogs have real-life consequences

Dogs are cute, I get it. Everyone loves their pet and wishes they could be with their little ball of fluff 24 hours a day. For some, this desire has mutated into paying $30 online, slapping a knock-off red vest on their pet and calling it a service animal.

Let me be blunt: Do not do that.

Registering pseudo-service animals is nothing short of a new plague in the U.S. There is almost no available data to show the rise, though, because owners are not required to register their emotional support animal with any official agency. All you need is a note from your doctor saying you need a support animal and BAM! You're in.

But you don't need statistical data to see the rise. Everyone knows someone who has, or at least has tried, to register their dog so they could keep it in their apartment that doesn't otherwise allow pets, take it to class or bring it on a plane.

Don't misunderstand me; emotional support animals are very real and very legitimate. Emotional support dogs fall under the umbrella of "service animals," though it is the tier that requires the least amount of professional training.

Under that umbrella, there are three distinct types of service dog:

There is the iconic service dog, trained to be attuned to one person and to ignore environmental stimuli. They are trained for specific purposes like detecting diabetic emergencies, acting as a guide dog and helping with conditions like autism. Therapy dogs, the second type, are the dogs who come to college campuses to relieve stress during finals.

Then, there are emotional support animals. They do not have the same public access as service dogs because they are not trained to behave in those settings. The Fair Housing Act of 1988 states that emotional support animals are "limited to residential dwellings as defined by FHA rules." Basically, they're allowed in apartments and houses, but not in public spaces.

Legitimate service dogs, whatever tier they fall into, are essential. Irreplaceable. A recent Purdue study has shown that veterans with PTSD have far better mental health after receiving the support of a service dog.

But, most people can't tell the difference between these tiers. It is incredibly difficult to distinguish between a real service dog and a fake one.

A North Carolina State study found that 40 percent of people thought it was illegal to ask someone with a service animal if it is required for their disability. It's not illegal to ask.

The same study also reported that 65 percent of people didn't know that they could ask what a dog was trained to do.

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So, when people register their new puppy as an emotional support dog, no one is typically going to question it -at least not out loud.

Actual service dogs represent less than one percent of the canine population in the U.S. Most people don't come across them often, and most people don't have enough experience to be able to tell the difference.

So, when you bring your poorly trained dog - yes, your dog is poorly trained when compared to the rigorous work a certified service dog goes through - into a restaurant or onto an airplane, and it barks and misbehaves and is a pain in the ass to everyone but you, the blame doesn't land on you. It gets spread out to every service dog who did pass the training, who cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 to train and cost their person thousands to obtain (a 4 Paws for Ability dog costs $17,000 to buy).

Fake service dogs lead not only to a diminished reputation for real service dogs, but to businesses like Delta Airlines cracking down on allowing service animals on their flights. Extensive paperwork is required to prove the legitimacy of real service animals. Many times, the policies of these businesses switch quickly and without notice, leading to people not being able to fly because they can't bring their dog. This epidemic has gotten to the point that 21 states have instituted laws against fake service animals.

Twenty-one states have made laws that explicitly say what we should already know. Stop pretending your Yorkie is a certified service dog because you're too wrapped up in how cute her ears are to leave her at home for the day.

And you may be sitting there thinking you're the exception. Your dog looks too good in his little red vest with a fraudulent label on the side. Your dog won't bite anyone or misbehave in public.

But why risk it? Why jeopardize the needs of people with PTSD, with autism -- with actual disabilities -- who need these animals?

Don't answer, because whatever justification you have is wrong. There is no reason, good or otherwise, to pretend that animal is trained to potentially save a life.

Especially when your selfishness only negatively affects people around you.

burnskl2@miamioh.edu

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