Fact checked

Real Service Dog Vest vs Fake: What is the Difference?

When determining between a real service dog vest vs fake you should focus on the demeanor of the dog rather than the vest itself. Service dogs are not required by law to wear a vest, with some legitimate service dogs wearing no vest at all. If a dog wearing a vest acts erratically or seems untrained, it may be a case of their owner attempting to pass off a pet dog as a service animal.

Kristi Carignan
March 29, 2024
April 17, 2023
8 minute read
Updated By
Matt Fleming
November 27, 2023
Expert Reviewed By:
April 17, 2023
August 18, 2021
8 minute read
November 27, 2023
There is more to service dogs than wearing a vest. Learn the difference between legitimate and illegitimate service dogs with Pettable.

Service dogs are distinguished from other animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Their training specifically links to their owner's disability, and they perform specific functions or jobs concerning it. Service dogs can be trained to assist with a wide variety of disabilities, for example, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are trained to help their handlers with a mental disability. ESAs, on the other hand, provide comfort, stress relief, and support to their owners with their presence. ESAs can be any legal animal rather than just a dog. However, they do need an ESA letter from a qualified mental health professional to ensure their legitimacy.

Do Service Dogs Have to Wear a Vest?

Service dogs and ESAs do not legally have to wear a vest or ID tag that identifies them as such. Nonetheless, a vest can alert the public that the dog is a working dog and can be beneficial to the owner if they so choose. 

These vests can be useful for a public purpose, for example, alerting emergency staff to their presence in the case of an emergency. 

Service Dog Vest Real VS Fake

Service dog vests and ESA vests simply alert the public that your dog is assisting you. While not legally necessary, they can benefit the wider public and the owner. 

When exploring service dog vest real vs. fake options, only opt for a vest that reflects your dog's purpose. If your dog isn't an ESA or service dog, avoid 'working dog' vests and opt for a conventional harness.

How Can You Tell that a Service Dog Vest is Fake?

Although a vest is unnecessary for service dogs, it can often serve as a useful visual aid for others when you and your canine companion are in public. However, because it’s not needed, there are no standards, so it’s easy to be deceived by someone trying to pass their pet off as an assistance animal. Just because a dog is wearing a vest or a special harness doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate service animal, so it’s not the accessory that’s fake — it’s the animal’s status that is in question.

How Can You Identify a Service Dog?

To determine whether a service dog is real, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that you can only ask two questions of the owner:

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

Although it may be frustrating, most other questions you could ask would likely violate federal law, so it’s best to stay compliant. However, you can also look out for some tell-tale signs that the canine companion is actually an assistance animal. If the dog appears to be leading or guiding its owner, or if it is well-behaved and appears comfortable in its public situation, it could be a service animal. Of course, this is where an optional vest can come in handy for disabled individuals and their service dogs; it can serve as a visible indication that might save you some time and hassle.

A service dog guiding its handler down a set of stairs.

How to Spot a Fake Service Dog

It can be easy to spot an illegitimate service dog and its owner based on some signs and behaviors from either the human or the canine. For instance, if the animal is small enough to be carried, it’s not likely a guide dog. If its owner is carrying it in a bag, it might be an emotional support animal instead of a service animal. If the dog appears nervous or is disruptive, it probably isn’t trained to serve its owner — it might just be an everyday pet, which while lovable, isn’t typically permitted in public places. However, if the dog is threatening to others or destructive of property, it is a red flag for an animal that hasn’t been trained for service.

Ultimately, a service dog can only be removed from a public place if it is causing a disturbance, not simply because they do not appear to be a service dog. If you are concerned about whether a dog is truly a service dog, you may ask the questions outlined by the ADA. If a proclaimed service dog is causing a significant disturbance, you may be within your rights to ask the handler to leave the premises.

Penalties for Misrepresenting a Dog as a Service Dog

The penalty for trying to pass a standard pet off as a service dog varies across the country, with 23 states having active laws against the owners of fake service animals. It is typically treated as a petty offense or misdemeanor, subject to fines in most cases, and in some instances, jail time. For example, Arizona reprimands those who “fraudulently misrepresent” service dogs with a fine of $250, while some states have more severe penalties, such as California’s $1000 fine and/or up to six months in jail.

Laws on Fake Service Dogs

Of course, laws aren’t limited to individuals who violate them — businesses that fraudulently represent their service dog products are also subject to regulations. Numerous state laws across the country target bogus companies that misrepresent their service animal products and try to charge customers for things they don’t need. 

For instance, Arkansas HB1420 requires businesses that sell emotional service animals or related products to give written notice that an ESA is not a service animal as defined by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). They must also provide written notice that products like vests, harnesses, or registration are not necessary for having a service dog or ESA.

California Law AB468 builds on these rules with an additional requirement for the medical professional involved in writing ESA or service dog letters. Before writing this document, the licensed mental health professional (LMHP) must have a relationship with the patient for at least 30 days. The LMHP must also have an active license to practice within the scope of mental health in the Golden State to write legitimate ESA or service dog letters. It’s always a good idea to check out the laws in your state as you go through the process, so you don’t fall for a bogus service.

Can Anyone Buy a Service Dog Vest?

Yes. Anyone can purchase a vest and put it on their dog. As there is no legal requirement for a service dog to wear a vest, there is also no official organization that provides service dog vests that vet owners or the dogs prior to offering the product. Although anyone can purchase a vest they should only be worn if your animal assists you as either a service dog or ESA. 

What is a Service Dog? 

Under the ADA, implemented by the Department of Justice, a service dog is classified as "a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability." The task(s) that the dog performs must directly relate to the individual's disability. Because of this, their training is specialized and distinguished from other pets. Service dogs work with a range of disabilities, including those that fall into the psychiatric, sensory, mental, and intellectual categories. 

People with service dogs must meet these two criteria: 

  1. They require a dog because of a disability. 
  2. The dog has been trained to perform a specific work task related to the disability. 
A service dog in monument valley, United States.

Where Can Service Dogs Go?

If you have a trained service dog, whether for mental or physical disabilities, you can take your canine companion nearly anywhere the public is allowed. This includes public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, government buildings, and medical facilities, as well as public transit and parks. Your service dog is also permitted to live with you in most rental housing situations, such as multifamily homes, condominiums, and apartment complexes, even if they don’t typically allow pets. Also, thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), you can even bring your service dog along with you in most air travel situations.

What do Service Dogs do for Their Handlers?

Service dogs perform an array of work-related tasks related to their owner's disability. Examples might include:

  • A dog reminding an owner with depression to take their medication
  • A dog who alerts its owner with diabetes that their blood sugar is low
  • A dog retrieving items for an owner who is unable to do so because of their disability.

Types of Service Dogs 

The ADA recognizes service dogs and psychiatric service dogs. Let's explore both in greater detail below. 

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs are very similar to ESAs in that they support owners and help alleviate certain emotional or psychiatric symptoms. Nonetheless, a psychiatric service dog has been trained to perform a specific task concerning its owner's disability. For example, they may take a specific action when they sense their owner is about to have a panic attack to lessen the symptoms. 

ESAs, conversely, provide comfort but do not necessarily perform a specific task. 

Service Dogs for Physical Disabilities

Much like psychiatric service dogs, service dogs for physical disabilities also perform specific functions related to a disability. If an owner has epilepsy, for example, they may alert their owner to an oncoming seizure or be trained to keep them safe during a seizure. 

A service dog helping it's handler in a wheelchair.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs 

Emotional support animals provide companionship and comfort to their humans. They can comfort them through challenging emotional and psychological experiences such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and insomnia. ESAs can be dogs or other legal species of animals like cats, parrots, pigs, Guinea pigs, and more. 

While the two are different, some states and local governments do allow ESAs into public spaces, provided they have an ESA letter from a mental health professional.

How to Get a Legitimate Service Dog

To obtain a legitimate service dog, it is recommended to consult a reputable organization that provides trained service dogs and to follow the necessary legal procedures. Here are two ways you can do so.

Be Diagnosed with a Disability that Requires a Service Dog

While service dogs do not legally need certification or professional training, they should be trained for a specific disability-related function. 

Train a Service Dog

Owners can opt to train their service dogs themselves or go through a professional trainer. 

Psychiatric Service Dog Training with Pettable

We offer a self-paced PSD training program for those wanting a PSD certification. Users can access 15 online training sessions by a professional trainer. 

If you aren't satisfied with the course within seven days, we offer a 100% money-back guarantee. 

Meet the author:
Kristi Carignan

Kristi Carignan is a seasoned freelance writer with over 20 years of experience crafting copy for global agencies and brands. When she's not writing, she enjoys spending time with her furry companions, Sugar the PomChi and Rudy the Shiba Inu, and indulging in hobbies like crafting and home renovation.

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