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The Very Real Danger of Fake Service Dogs

By Jason Bottlinger on January 16, 2018

Service dogs provide an amazing and crucial service for people living with disabilities.

Unfortunately, some people have used these dogs’ recent popularity as an opportunity to break the rules. Fake service dogs, which are really just pets in fancy vests, do not provide critical services or help save lives. These animals present a danger to actual service dogs, as well as to children, since they are not trained the way service dogs are.

And if you’re bitten, it still hurts.

What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog is specially trained, often over the course of several years, to behave in a particular way that helps someone with some type of physical disability or mental illness (No, it doesn’t have to be a dog—several animals take on these duties.) Service dogs are often indicated by vests they wear so people can tell they are service animals. Because of their training, anyone other than the owner should not pet or directly interact with the dog, as it can interfere with its special tasks.

There are many different ways service dogs help their owners, depending on the disability or condition a person has. A service dog can guide a vision-impaired person on city streets and public transportation, or listen for doorbells and phones for someone who is hearing-impaired. People in wheelchairs often have service dogs to help them reach and retrieve items that would otherwise be difficult to grab. Individuals with medical conditions that cause seizures have service dogs that can actually sense when their owners are about to have a seizure and warn them, so the seizure can be prevented with medication or happen in a safe area to prevent injury. Some service dogs are specially trained to assist people with mental illness, and can fetch medication, or perform deep pressure therapy to help ease the effects of their handler’s anxiety attack.

If the animal’s purpose is to provide emotional support, it is referred to as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). These animals are not specially trained to assist people or mitigate the handler’s disability, but instead offer unconditional love and companionship to their owners.

Laws Protecting Service Dogs

Real service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which was written to protect people with disabilities from harassment and prejudice. Under this law, police officers and people in businesses cannot ask anything of a person with a service animal other than:

  1. Whether the animal is a service dog, and
  2. What service the animal has been trained to perform.

No one is allowed to demand the dog perform a service or ask about any kind of license or registration, since there is no national registry of service dogs. Because of this, it’s fairly easy to abuse the system. Many (unscrupulous) people take their pet dogs wherever they want, pretending they are service dogs when confronted.

Unlike service animals, ESAs do not have these federal protections, and are not permitted in establishments that do not allow pets. However, under the Fair Housing Act, they can reside with their owners in housing that has a “no pets” policy.

The Downside of Fake Service Dogs

Fake service dogs don’t have special training, or even necessarily any training, to behave appropriately in public. Fake service dogs are allowed onto airplanes and into businesses, where they have no right to be. Real service dogs are painstakingly trained to be docile and never become aggressive. Untrained dogs can instinctively bark at and attack service dogs, but the service dogs will not bark or fight back. This has led to quite a few attacks against children, adults, and actual service dogs.

Dog Bite Law in Nebraska

In general, the owner of a dog that attacks a person, other animal, or object is liable for damages and injuries caused by the dog—unless the victim was trespassing. This includes bites, scratches, and injuries from being knocked down if a dog jumps onto a person. Under Nebraska law, this is strict liability, and the dog’s owner is responsible for all damages.

There is one major exception to this law: injuries from a dog acting “playful or mischievous” are not considered an attack and the owner is not liable for them. This is a pretty huge exception with a lot of room for interpretation regarding “playful behavior” from a dog. Since the owner can argue that his dog didn’t attack anyone, he can argue that he’s not liable for the results.

If a Dog Bites You, Here’s What to Do

First of all, seek medical attention. Do not, under any circumstance, sign or agree to anything from any insurance company before you talk to a lawyer, especially the dog owner’s insurer. Call law enforcement and report the attack and provide as much detail as you can about how the attack occurred. Even if the dog’s owner claims the animal is a service dog, you should still contact law enforcement.

You might consider bringing a civil lawsuit against the dog’s owner to pay for your expenses, if the insurer or owner denies your claims. An experienced attorney can advise you on whether you have a strong case or not. At Bottlinger Law L.L.C., our Omaha dog bite attorney has handled cases involving all kinds of dogs. When a “service” dog attacks, don’t be cowed—or fooled. Contact our legal team at (402) 505-8234 for a free consultation to explore your options.

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