Editor’s Note: This is part 3 of a 6-part series, “Fake Service Dogs, Real Problem.” (You can start at Part 1 here.)
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Clients ask veterinarians to do pretty outlandish things:
- They ask me to call their male cat female, because their little girl wanted a girl cat, but they came home with a male kitten by mistake.
- They ask me if CVS will fill their dog’s prescription under their human insurance.
- They ask me to lie about a pet’s pre-existing condition so they can now go out and buy pet insurance (after the fact).
- And they ask me to give them medicine for their aunt’s dog, whom I’ve never seen.
Now some of these things are simply silly. Let them call the kitty “Minette” instead of “Minouche,” but my medical records have to state the correct gender. As far as falsifying prescriptions, my prescription pad says I’m a veterinarian, not a physician, so good luck trying to scam the pharmacist. And even if I wish a client had pet health insurance to defray costs, I can’t lie on medical records. Asking for medicine for a pet I’ve never seen? This is against the law.
In all these circumstances, the client is asking the veterinarian to lie. Why can’t I lie? Besides the fact that it’s wrong and unethical, medical records are legal documents. I am the keeper of the medical records. Lying, changing or falsifying medical records puts my veterinary license in jeopardy.
So when a client asks me to lie, she’s actually saying, “Go ahead. Do me this little favor. You’re just putting your entire livelihood and professional ethics on the line for me. And you’re breaking the law. But there’s a good chance no one will find out. So go ahead. Make my day.”
Thanks to the Internet, we have a new way people are trying to corrupt the system. People with no disabilities or serious psychiatric disorders are buying false service dog tags and vests online so they can bring their pet on airplanes, in stores, on dog-restricted beaches, etc. Some people try to get a letter from their mental health professional stating that they need their pet for anxiety disorders. Others simply order service dog materials online, hoping that airlines and stores will not give them any trouble.
If you live in America in the 21st century, it’s highly probable that you suffer from some kind of stress or anxiety. Wait. Let me amend that. If you’re a human being, you suffer stress. But that doesn’t mean most of us can’t get on an airplane or walk into the grocery store without a service dog, pony or turtle in tow.
(Yes, a colleague of mine writes a health certificate every year to certify that a client’s turtle is a happy, healthy, therapy turtle.) Personally, I’d rather take the red eye cross-country sitting next to a turtle than a yap-yap-nut-pup. Nothing like snuggling up to a cold shell to alleviate my fear of flying.
So what is the role of a veterinarian in Service-Pooch-Gate? Unfortunately, we can do very little to stop this practice. If a person is going to try to fake a service dog, they can try it without a mental health professional or a veterinarian. It’s ultimately up to the airline or the store or restaurant to confront the owner (within the boundaries of the law).
For legitimate service animals, they get excellent veterinary care through their organizations. The real, reputable groups keep meticulous records, and I fill out a physical examination form. The trained service dogs or dogs in training come to me with THEIR paperwork, not the other way around.
Service Dog Letter?
What do I do if I have a sketchy critter in front of me? This could be the pet, the owner or both. Say the owner wants a health certificate, telling me her pet is a service animal, and I have before me a Chihuahua. Although healthy, Juanita has just tried to make me a nine-fingered veterinarian.
“Does Juanita usually bite?”
“Has she been trained?”
“She is trained.”
“Who is her trainer?”
“Are you a service dog trainer?”
You get the idea. So I have a nasty little dog before me, with no reliable paperwork from a service dog organization, owned by a woman who claims the biting Chihuahua is trained to be a service dog. I can certify the dog’s health status, but not temperament. And I have proof that she is not properly trained.
By law, I am allowed to ask the owner only two questions:
- “Is this a service dog required because of a disability?”
- “What is the dog trained to do to mitigate the disability?”
If I feel this dog is not properly trained, and could act aggressively in public, what is my recourse? The only thing I can do, if given paperwork that looks false, is check out the organization and refuse to sign. I can issue a health certificate if the dog is in good health. That’s it.
But it is my place to convince Ms. Chihuahua-head that it is unethical to pass off the snarling Juanita as a service dog, just so she can walk her on the beach or carry her on a plane. Juanita could put a disabled person in jeopardy if the little dog snarls at a legitimate service dog that is working on that beach. If Juanita bites the person in the adjoining airplane seat because Juanita has not been properly trained as a service dog, she gives all service dogs a bad name. Juanita is a weapon in a lap, not a service dog.
The Disreputable Web
As I was researching this article, Google pop-up ads were all over my computer from these disreputable companies, Free My Paws being the biggest offender. If you go on these websites, the companies do a good job of convincing people they deserve to have a service dog, and that they are completely within the law to do so. It’s my job to discuss the ethical ramifications of this selfish behavior.
A veterinarian recently reported a client came to her with two 9-week-old puppies, asking her to be complicit in writing on their records that they were service dogs. This is absolutely ridiculous, and shows how ignorant people are about real service dogs.
No puppies are service dogs. They may be in the hands of a specialized trainer. They may be beginning the long, hard journey of training to be service dogs. But it will only be after 18 to 24 months of special handling to see if they have the right temperament and abilities to be placed with a person in need. Thousands of dollars will have gone into their care and training, and they will be worth thousands of dollars. They will be able to save lives, a service that has no price tag.
Caring for Service Dogs Is an Honor
September is National Service Dog Month, but all year round I feel that providing veterinary care for service dogs is an honor. I cherish the photographs I have of my service dog patients who achieve the highest honor: being placed with a person in need and completing a team.
Many years ago, one of my favorite guiding eyes dog, Venus, suffered a gastric torsion. Luckily, we saved her life. She returned to do service for four more years, and then enjoyed retirement. Her professional portrait, given to me by her owner, is on my clinic wall, along with the letter I received from the president of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, thanking me for saving Venus.
If the fake service dog scam continues to escalate, real service dogs, and the privileges and respect they are entitled to, will be in jeopardy. Please don’t participate in Service-Pooch-Gate. Lives are at stake, literally.
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