Everyone knows about fake service dogs – dogs who have a vest that says “service dog” but pull on the leash, bark, and generally act like your average pet.
But what people don’t know is how often the person holding the leash is the victim of a scam, and they don’t even know that their service dog is not legitimate.
Sometimes people contact us after they realize they’ve been scammed, and they are looking for help.
Sometimes we have to gently break it to people when we realize they have been scammed.
It’s never fun.
It makes me angry that there are people willing to prey on disabled people who are looking for help. I hope this article helps save a few people from these common scams.
Scam #1: Fake Service Dog Registration.
If I google “service dog registration canada” I come up with a long list of scam sites. They urge you to pay them money now to “register” your dog in return for fake IDs, fake letters from fake doctors etc. But of course they don’t say that it’s all fake. They make themselves look as legitimate as possible.
My personal favourite is the one which clearly displays its address in the USA while urging me to choose them because they’re based in Canada.
So, how do you spot these sites?
If it isn’t a government website, then they have no right to make any kind of declaration about whether or not your dog is registered or certified in your area.
If no one has asked you for a doctor’s note and checked to see if your dog behaves itself, then they have absolutely no authority whatsoever.
If they’re asking you for money, be suspicious.
While service dog laws vary from province to province, here is a summary of the laws here in British Columbia:
Scam #2: Selling You A Fake Service Dog
Even worse than bilking people out of a couple of hundred dollars for a false service dog ID is selling a false service dog. A fully trained service dog can sell for anywhere from $5,000-$15,000. Are they worth that? Absolutely.
…IF they are actually well trained.
Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there who will put a head halter on any dog and sell it to you as a service dog.
These high profile cases are merely the tip of the iceberg. Fake service dog scams can be found all over the world, including here in Canada.
Here’s how you spot a service dog scammer:
They are not on any lists posted by reliable institutions. Self-Regulating organizations such as Assistance Dogs International will list approved members. https://assistancedogsinternational.org/resources/member-search/
Their dogs pull on the leash or require frequent corrections.
A trained service dog should walk next to their handler calmly and on a loose leash. That means the leash should be hanging down in a J or U shape and the handler does not seem to need the leash in order to direct the dog. In fact, the handler should be able to drop the leash and keep walking, and the dog acts just the same.
Their dogs need special equipment.
A well trained service dog behaves the same off leash as on leash. A trained service dog should not require a prong collar, a shock collar, or any other form of extreme control. Some service dogs may wear head halters, because their handler is in a wheelchair or is frail and even an accidental tug on the leash could result in injury. But most fully qualified service dogs only require a simple harness or flat collar.
The dogs do not perform specialized skills.
Service dog scammers don’t know how to train dogs, only control them. You can use scolding and punishment to stop a dog from yanking on the leash, but it takes a lot more skill to train a dog to fetch medications, find a lost possession, or carry their own poop bag and put it in the garbage. Your service dog should be able to perform several advanced skills designed to assist you in daily life.
A dog who can just heel nicely and sit-stay is a well behaved pet, not a service dog. Check the organizations social media channels – skilled trainers delight in showing off what their dogs can do and they’ll have the social media posts to back it up!
They have the dogs’ names on their service dog capes.
There’s a reason that big service dog organizations don’t embroider the dogs’ names on their capes, and it has nothing to do with cost. It would be easy to find a nice volunteer to embroider a special cape for each graduate. No, the reason they don’t do it is because they know that you don’t want the public to know your dogs’ names. Some of my clients even have “stage names” for their dogs that they’ll give the public when someone asks for their dogs’ names. It’s extremely annoying to have people calling your dog from across the room when you’re trying to keep him under your chair in McDonald’s.
So I raise my eyebrows at any organization that does this, because to me it practically screams “lack of experience”.
Their trainers don’t have any certifications.
Experience is not a substitute for education. I have learned immense amounts from my dozen plus years of hands-on experience training dogs, but just as vital has been active pursuit of education on the subject of dog training. A dedicated dog trainer invests in their career, and will be able to list courses or apprenticeships they have taken and certifications they have achieved, and will be happy to refer you to the schools that trained them.
Once again, check their claims at the back end. If they say they are CPDT-KAs, for example, you will find them on the CCPDT website.
They don’t have a good relationship with similar organizations nearby
There’s not much competition in the service dog charity world. The demand far outstrips production, which exactly why these service dog scammers are able to do so well. Service dog schools swap training methods, breeding dogs, and anything else they think will help each other succeed. If the organization you are looking into doesn’t seem to have good affiliations with similar organizations, nearby or abroad, it’s worth calling those other schools to find out why.
They don’t screen applicants carefully.
A true service dog organization wants its dogs to go to good homes and worthy recipients. They will want reports from your doctors, they will check your finances to ensure you can provide food and vet care to the dog, they’ll ask for references, and they may even run a criminal record check on you to make sure you aren’t an animal abuser.
They’ll ask you about your schedule, your pasttimes, your home life, and your recreational activities so they can match the right dog to the right person – they don’t want to pair a slug-dog to someone who does marathons, or hand a canine athlete to someone who rarely leaves the house. Since demand is so high, service dog schools can be very picky about matchmaking to ensure that the paired teams are ideal.
They don’t treat their clients well.
Service dog organizations exist to help people, and they are run by people who love people. They should be educated on the nature of your disability, they should not express ableist beliefs, they should demonstrate genuine care and consideration for their clients and their needs, and they should be willing and able to accommodate your disability.
They don’t behave professionally.
Professionals behave like professionals and care how they and their dogs are perceived by the public. They require their clients to behave professionally as well and will coach them in how to handle difficult situations (such as being questioned about their service dog) with grace. They will coach their clients on ways to be discrete with their dog in public and to ensure their dog is not a nuisance to others. They will respect their clients’ privacy and human rights.
It should go without saying that they will not try to take advantage of their clients, or offer you discounts if you recruit more clients for them as if they were Mary Kay.
Their fee for the dog is non-refundable.
Most of the big charities do not charge their clients for the dogs, but instead choose to retain ownership and “loan” the dog out to the client. But some do permit the transfer of ownership for a fair price. Usually the client is expected to fundraise for the dog, rather than pay out of pocket. None of these things are, by themselves, suspicious.
However, if papers you are signing commit you to paying a non-refundable fee, with or without ownership of the dog, please ask more questions. What if the dog isn’t a good fit for you? What if you realize you don’t actually like having a service dog? You should always be able to return the dog without ending up out-of-pocket if things aren’t a good fit.
Some scams will sell a dog to someone, or charge application fees in the thousands, only to give out an aggressive, untrained or otherwise unsuitable dog. When the dog is ultimately returned, they refuse to return the money – usually while deflecting responsibility onto the recipient – then turn around and sell the dog to someone else.
Don’t let this happen to you. Read the fine print on any contracts you sign, and make sure it includes guarantees regarding the dog’s behavior, and allows for refunds if the dog is aggressive or unsuitable.
The dog training industry is completely unregulated by the government. While voluntary certifications exist – such as the BC AnimalKind program, and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers – the government has no legal definition of what constitutes a “dog trainer”, and anyone can go to PetSmart, buy themselves a shock collar, and set up a business training dogs.
We are plagued enough by people who think that punishing a dog into submission is “training” and sell it as such to innocent people and their dogs. It’s ten times worse, though, when a family with a disabled child is faced with the grief of a badly behaved dog who cost them hundreds or even thousands.
When it comes to predatory website scams, our justice system is helpless, as these websites are usually based out of the U.S. and therefore not answerable to British Columbia laws.
Please check things out carefully. Be very wary of buying things online, or getting information about service dog laws online. I’ve lost count of the number of clients who think the American Disability Act rules apply here in Canada.
Be safe out there.