How to Tell if a Service Dog is Real vs Fake

How to Tell if a Service Dog is Real vs Fake

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. You’re meandering through Target when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large yellow lab comes around the corner pulling its handler down the aisle, sniffing merchandise and vocalizing at passersby. The dog is wearing a bright red vest labeled SERVICE DOG with a shiny ID card clipped to it. The handler is in a wheelchair.
  2. During a visit to the mall you see a tiny chihuahua calmly following its handler as they negotiate the crowd. The dog is wearing no identifying gear and the handler has no outward physical signs of disability that you can see.
  3. A large Great Dane accompanies its handler through the grocery store. The dog is very well behaved and attentive to its handler. The handler is balancing using the dog’s back as they walk. He/she is wearing a red vest labelled EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL.

Which of these dogs is a real service dog and which is fake?

Perhaps 1 and 3 are real and 2 is fake? After all, aren’t Service Dogs supposed to be clearly marked? Or maybe only 1 is real because it’s the only dog that has a service dog ID. Another possibility is that 2 and 3 are real while 1 is fake, service dogs should be well behaved after all…

The answer is that there is no way to definitively know which of these service dogs is real and which is fake unless the handler volunteers that information. It is also not the place of the general public to question or determine the validity of a service dog team (many states have laws against the harassment of service dog teams).

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has very clear requirements that must be met to be a legally recognized service dog:

  • A Service Animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.
  • That’s it!

So what does that mean? Let’s break down that sentence.

  1.  “A Service Animal is a dog”. Well, that part is pretty self explanatory.
  2.  “that is individually trained”. Service Dogs must be specifically and purposefully trained to do their tasks or work. Natural behaviors that weren’t trained don’t count towards a dog’s tasks.
  3. “to do work or perform tasks”. Work or Tasks are behaviors/skills that a dog performs on cue that mitigate an individual’s disability.
  4. “for a person with a disability.” The handler must be disabled according to the ADA’s definitionAn individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. 

As long as a dog meets the above definition, it is a service dog. If an individual only needed a Service Dog at home (a completely valid situation), they could stop there and still have a fully fledged Service Dog. However, if someone needed assistance in public places where dogs aren’t usually allowed there are two more minimum standards to be met in order for a team to be legally granted public access rights:

It’s really that simple.

In the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the DOJ (Department of Justice) has clearly laid out 2 questions that employees of business entities are allowed to ask service dog handlers, in the case that it isn’t obvious, in order to verify their legal status:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

As long as a Service Dog handler can satisfactorily answer the 2 questions (if asked) and the dog is housebroken and under control, that is all the proof that is needed for a Real Service Dog. A Service Dog is not required to wear any identifying apparel. A Service Dog is not required to be certified or registered. Disabilities are not always visible or obvious. Service Dogs can be any breed or size. Service Dogs can be from a program, professionally trained or owner-trained, and none of those options more valid than the others.

So what should you do if you believe a Service Dog team does not meet those requirements listed above?

If you are an employee or owner of a business, the best course of action is to first ask the 2 allowed questions. If the handler cannot answer those questions, or their answers are inconsistent with the laws, you can ask them to leave. If a Service Dog is out of control or dangerous and the handler can’t or wont regain control, you can ask them to leave. If the Service Dog is not housebroken, you can ask them to leave. If they wont leave, you can call the police.

If you are a member of the public, the best course of action is to bring your concerns to an employee and educate them on their rights. They may or may not handle the situation in a way that you approve of, but unless you feel a crime has been committed against you, it is out of your hands. If a Service Dog or a handler has committed a crime against you, document it if you can and call the police and/or a store employee.

It is important to remember that Service Dogs are not robots and neither are their handlers! Whenever possible we should give Service Dog teams the benefit of the doubt. Even the best trained Service Dogs can get sick in a store or have a bad day and act out inappropriately. This doesn’t mean they aren’t real Service Dogs. In the case of example 1 above, we have no idea if the dog is still in training, or having a bad day, or even just poorly trained with a handler who isn’t fully educated. In example 3 perhaps the handler is confused on the differences between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals, and purchased an ESA vest even though the dog meets the requirements of a Service Dog above. In example 2 the handler could have an invisible disability such as diabetes, PTSD or a heart condition.

So how can we determine if a Service Dog is Real vs Fake?

We can’t.

There is no way to know for sure. BUT THAT’S OK. Unfortunately, there are always people who will lie and take advantage of the rules. That can be upsetting and sometimes harmful. What really matters in this case is the dog’s behavior, and the ADA provides ways to address inappropriate behavior.

Here at the Service Dog Society, we firmly believe in giving each other the benefit of the doubt and fighting for what is right through education. The best thing you can do is to know your rights and to gently inform those around you what their rights are. Whether you are a handler, friend, business or a curious member of the public, some good places to start are the Federal Law FAQs and your State Laws. If you have a specific question, don’t hesitate to contact us.


Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.