Why “fake-spotting” culture is harmful

I posted an innocent video today of myself in my wheelchair with my service dog in training, Felix, and a friend in her wheelchair with her Brussels Griffon service dog Callie Mae. In the video we are excited to start our day at Magic Kingdom in Disney World and are riding the ferry. You can see the video below:

While the video only currently has 70 views, one person thought it was important to comment the following:

Wow, I’m willing 2 bed these are just more shameful ppl tryna pass off their PETS as service animals jus so they can bring them along I’d loooove 2 know what SERVICE those dogs provide, other than excuses 2 take advantage of a law made for actual disabled ppl. If I’m wrong, I apologize, however, I highly doubt that I am!

Please do not be mean to this person.

This is an example of “fake-spotting”. There is a lot of fake-spotting both among abled people and among disabled people, and it appears to be especially prevalent whenever someone sees a non-traditional breed being used as a service dog, or when someone who doesn’t “look disabled” has a service dog.

Fake-spotting inevitably turns into becoming the “service dog police”, where otherwise rational people can go so far as to start screaming or even physically assaulting people using service dogs because they don’t feel they are a legitimate team.

Believe me, as a service dog user, I totally understand how frustrating it is when we’re out in public and we see a dog labeled as a service dog, yet they are doing some decidedly un-service-dog-like things. Those situations make me upset, too! But I don’t think calling others out as fakers is the way to handle it.

There could be a number of reasons why a dog doesn’t look or act in an expected manner. The handler could be using an unexpected breed or size of dog, the handler may have an invisible disability, the dog might have on “Amazon gear”, the dog might be having a bad day, or the dog could be poorly trained. But none of these things mean the dog is a “fake” necessarily, and even an expert like me can rarely presume to know.

People use service dogs of all different breeds depending on their needs. In my case, I needed a small, low-energy and non-barky dog. A typical Lab or Golden wouldn’t work well for my disability-related needs. I physically cannot provide the exercise these large dogs need, and they cannot provide pressure therapy on my chest while I’m walking or rolling along. And while we’re talking about breeds, let’s talk about species, as well. Some people are allergic to dogs or have religious reasons they cannot be around dogs, and these people (along with others for various reasons) need to use miniature horses as their service animals. Our disability-related needs might preclude us from having the typical Lab or Golden, but that doesn’t mean our animals are any less legitimate.

I need a small dog because it’s easier for me to manage with my disabilities. However I have friends who are larger people and need their dogs to provide mobility work. These people need giant breeds to be their service animals. Again, people have different disability-related needs that might lead to them having a tiny or giant service dog.

Not all disabilities are visible! In fact, it seems to me that most disabilities are invisible. That means that an outsider just looking at you can’t tell that you are disabled. People with seizures, heart conditions, psychiatric disabilities, diabetes, Deafness, and many other types of disabilities don’t always look disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t!

Additionally, the gear that a service dog wears is not indicative of the legitimacy of the team. Service dogs aren’t required to wear any gear, and gear can be quite expensive—especially if it is custom gear. There’s a lot of gear shaming, especially in the service dog community. People might call out “Amazon gear” or “Amazon vests” as items you can get cheaply on Amazon as indicators that the team is a “fake”. There are many reasons people may use the gear they have on their dog. Not every has hundreds of dollars to spend on custom gear, and not everyone wants custom gear. If a $15 Amazon vest works well for their dog, there’s no need for their dog to wear something else.

So that covers the looks of the team, but what about a team that isn’t behaving as one would expect a service dog to behave? Well it might be shocking to hear this, but service dogs are DOGS. They are living beings who aren’t always going to be at the top of their game. A service dog can get sick or injured, or just have a bad day. These temporary lapses in behavior might cause a dog to have an accident in a store or become easily distracted by things it would normally ignore. Just because an animal is having a bad day doesn’t mean that they aren’t a service dog. You’ve had terrible days, and you never know what other people and dogs are going through.

Another reason for a dog not behaving appropriately is poor training. Even though a dog might be poorly trained, it doesn’t mean it’s not a service dog. A service dog is trained to do work or tasks to mitigate the disability of their handler. So a dog might be well able to assist their person, but lacking in some more basic manners like heeling. Believe it or not, heeling is not a requirement under the ADA for a dog to be a service dog. All that’s required is that the dog is not disruptive or destructive. And if it is, the animal may be kicked out of the business. Of course I recommend that everyone strives for the highest level of training they are able to achieve with their service dog, but most service dogs are not obedience champions and might occasionally slip up and snack on a dropped food item or say hi to a stranger.

Of course there are people who don’t have a disability and/or whose animal doesn’t assist with their disability who really are gaming the system. If these people have impeccably behaved dogs, honestly who cares? What’s it to you or even someone with a legitimate service dog if there’s a well behaved dog that’s acting like a service dog? I do think it’s immoral, but it’s none of my business if they’re not promoting this to others. These people should be left alone. They’re not doing any harm to other legitimate service dog users.

There are also people like this who have poorly behaved dogs (I’m not talking about anything clearly unsafe). We should definitely call them out, right? Nope! How do you KNOW they aren’t a legit team? How do you know their dog isn’t having a bad day? We need to think about the tradeoff between the possibility of spotting an actual fraudster and the consequences of accusing a disabled person who’s doing their best to get along in life.

You can maybe do things like offer assistance if you know something about dog training or have resources to recommend. But don’t assume the dog is a “fake”. If the dog is seriously out of control, as in it is disruptive or destructive, then I recommend telling a manager about the laws that protect businesses that allow businesses to require removal of ill-behaved dogs, whether they are service dogs or not.

Now we get to the meat of my story…Why is it so bad to be a “fake spotter” or the “service dog police”?

Being the target of these accusations is extremely harmful. To someone with a disability whose daily life is a struggle, being accused of faking either their disability or their dog as a service dog can be a huge setback. It can make us doubt whether we deserve to have a service dog, or even deserve to be able to leave our houses. It can be extremely anxiety-provoking. Reactions I’ve seen to fake-spotting have been as mild as annoyance to as severe as triggering a major episode of a person’s illness. These episodes can be life-threatening.

I’ve known several teams whose dogs have been distracted by the extreme physical responses of the person doing the accusing (which often at least involves shouting and aggressive body language, if not a physical attack), and the dogs have missed crucial alerts to their handler’s medical conditions leading to them having to go to the hospital.

These behaviors occur both in the abled and disabled community, but when disabled people gatekeep disabilities and service dogs amongst themselves, it emboldens abled people to take it to an even further extreme. So no matter what community you’re in, fake spotting is never a good thing.

I’ll end this entry with a couple of personal stories. I once tried to visit a podiatrist. On my second visit to the office, a nurse harassed me, repeatedly trying to require “paperwork” for my service dog (there isn’t legally meaningful/required service dog paperwork in the US, apart from flying). Her excuse was that her brother had a service dog, which meant she knew EVERYTHING about service dogs…She harassed me for 15 minutes straight before even telling the doctor I was there for the appointment. That just about broke me. By the end of the appointment I was a crying mess. I seriously considered never going back to the podiatrist even though I had a serious condition that has since impacted my ability to walk. All because this nurse was sure I was faking because I didn’t have paperwork.

Another time I boarded a bus with my service dog. The driver let me on, but then started accusing me of not being a legitimate team. Halfway between where I started and where I was going, she kicked me off the bus with me in tears, and radioed all the other bus drivers not to pick me up. I was stranded an hour’s walk from home, crying at night at a bus stop in a bad part of town. Luckily the next bus driver to pull up smiled at me and welcomed me onto his bus.

While I know that peoples’ intentions who fake-spot and try to be the service dog police are good—they are after all trying to protect legitimate teams—the consequences of their actions usually end up harming truly disabled people and their legitimate service dogs. Assumptions about what service dogs should look and act like are not always valid (aside from truly disruptive or destructive behavior), and the best course of action is to go about your business and ignore the team, or if you feel you must, offer the team support and assistance.

I know I’ve been talking about “fake-spotting” when it comes to service dogs, but you should know this also applies to disabled people without service dogs, especially when it comes to things like accessible parking spaces or other cases where people are trying to use accommodations when you might not realize why.

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