Don't Pretend Your Dog Is a Service Animal

It's wrong to fake it, but you shouldn't have to. Restaurants should be allowed to allow pets.

NOT coming to a restaurant near you.

Photographer: Peter Suderman

They walk into the restaurant, their dog in tow. The dog is wearing a service vest, and you scan them to see what sort of disability they need a dog for. None is apparent, but some conditions aren’t obvious, so who knows. Maybe it’s a seizure-detecting hound. However, you can’t help but notice that the dog doesn’t seem to be exactly exquisitely trained. She’s squirming around, begging for food, barking at another service dog across the restaurant.

As you watch them enjoying their meal, maybe you think to yourself, “I wonder what it takes to get one of those vests?” After all, you’re fond of your dog, and you’d rather have him with you at dinner than cooped up home alone.

The answer is that it doesn’t take much at all. You can order them from Amazon. And since restaurants have to let you in, and are unlikely to get strict and invasive by demanding documentation, plenty of people are strolling their pets into pet-unfriendly public places under the auspices of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for the smugglers. I love my dog, and would love to be able to travel with him -- an impossibility, currently, because there are safety concerns about sticking a 170-pound bullmastiff with a congenital spinal defect into a crate to be shipped as cargo. Designating him as a service dog would enable me to take him on the airplane with me. I’d enjoy taking him to dinner with me, too, or to the library. Like many pet owners, I tend to imagine that anywhere I go would be even better if my dog were there.

There’s a simple reason that I don’t get one of those vests: My dog is not a service dog. I don’t just mean that it’s wrong to lie, although of course, it is. But also: My dog isn’t trained like a service dog. In fact, a 170-pound dog who can’t have any pressure put on his neck without risk of paralysis is pretty darn hard to control. Now, my dog is very, very friendly. He never barks, and he’s not going to, say, bite a patron or another dog. On the other hand, he’s apt to want to run around the restaurant or airplane, letting everyone know just how glad he is to meet them.

Terrorizing people who are afraid of large dogs, disrupting food service, and generally making a nuisance of myself is not something I should do just because I can probably get away with it. Worse, as I once discovered to my dismay on the street, if my dog sees a service dog, a real one, he’ll be over there like a shot, wanting to say hello. He could distract that service dog and put the person who needs it in danger. (The dog’s owner was quite understanding as I apologized profusely and dragged my dog away.)

Unless your dog is trained as a service dog, it’s wrong -- really wrong, not just mildly illegal -- to pretend that it is. People who depend on their service dogs to live a normal life are falling under unfair suspicion because of the epidemic of fakes. It’s not always obvious why someone needs a service dog; they can be trained to do everything from warning of oncoming seizures to picking up objects for people whose spinal problems prevent them from bending over to retrieve something they’ve dropped. So people who genuinely need a highly trained animal cannot be distinguished at first glance from people who just want to hang out with their pets. Abuse undermines support for, and fair implementation of, a much-needed law.

Sadly, I doubt my moral exhortation is going to stem the tide of fake service dogs. Since we can’t depend on people to behave themselves, something will have to be done. The question is, what?

One obvious answer is that we could establish a certifying body for service dogs, one with an easily recognizable seal that can reassure people that yes, this dog is working, not relaxing with its family.

That doesn’t necessarily mean more government regulation, only better. Bad drafting in the ADA is, after all, what created this problem in the first place. Luckily, there’s a lot of precedent for private bodies as certifying agents.

Those of us who worry about how our food animals are treated are probably familiar with the “Certified Humane” label (and if you aren’t, you should get familiar!). Animal-welfare types long complained that labels like “Free range eggs” could mean any number of things, including conditions that made for a pretty miserable existence. A private effort offered a meaningful label, entirely voluntary, that consumers who wanted to find humanely raised animal products could depend on. It’s easy to see how a similar effort could certify service-dog organizations, solving the information problem that abusers are exploiting. How else is a restaurateur to quickly size up which vested pooch is a poseur?

Even if restaurants and other public accommodations wouldn’t necessarily have the authority to turn away non-certified animals under the ADA, a widely recognized label would help the community to enforce its own norms: The sheer embarrassment of turning up with a non-certified animal, and having everyone know that you’re cheating at the expense of disabled people, might well deter many would-be scofflaws.

We could also, of course, tweak the ADA to require some sort of certification. But it might be more effective to tweak another part of the legal code: the health regulations that currently keep non-service dogs and cats out of so many public spaces. They’re not really necessary, and it’s unlikely that they’re making us any healthier or safer.

I know what you’re thinking: “Eeeewwww! You want to let dogs into the grocery store?!?” But the fact is that common household pets don’t carry many diseases that humans get. (After a friend accidentally got a mouthful of dog-tongue from an over-enthusiastic pet, a nearby biologist reassured her: “From a disease perspective, you’re safer kissing a strange dog than a strange person”.) There is some risk that a dog or cat will make you sick, but the risk does not really seem to be very large. You will perhaps have noticed that millions of Americans dine around their pets every night without keeling over from fatal infections. 1

Maybe you just don’t want a dog near you while you’re eating, and while I am sad for you, friend, I respect your wishes. So would many restaurants, which would bar pets. Airplanes would probably continue to refuse to allow dogs to be in the cabin unless they’re small enough to carry on in a carrier and stow under the seat.

But some restaurants could cater to pet owners who want to bring their furry companions in for a meal. That’s what you see in Europe, and no one seems particularly worried by it. Nor are they plagued by crippling epidemics of pet-borne disease. If Americans weren’t completely barred from bringing their pets out with them to so many places, they might not feel so much need -- or entitlement -- to exploit loopholes.

Isn’t this just a stealth plea to let me bring my dog to dinner, using the pretext of a problem with the ADA? Alas no; I think I mentioned that my dog is 170 pounds and very hard to control, meaning that he does not dine with us even at outdoor venues where this is allowed. But there are millions of less exuberant pets who could be invited to dinner and be relied upon to mind their manners -- and then politely be asked to leave if they forgot themselves. A reasonable accommodation for those animals might go a long way to end a lot of unreasonable abuse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. When you read officials justifying America’s extraordinarily broad bans on pets, they sound a touch paranoid: “Well, the dog could have picked up campylobacter from another dog, and then licked their fur, and the waiter might pet the dog, and then not wash their hands, and then they could go into the kitchen, and they could touch the chef …” Okay, yes, but a patron might stumble on the street, and put their hand on the ground to steady themselves, and then shake the host’s hand, and then the host might go into the kitchen … ultimately, these are not arguments for keeping pets out of restaurants. They are arguments for ordering everyone to stay in their bathtubs, bathing in a pool of Lysol.

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