My Opinion: Fake Service Dogs Are the Lowest Scam of Them All

Few scams are worse than using the desperation of disabled and ill people to sell them a fake service dog.


Somehow, I’ve never lost my capacity to be amazed at the depths people will go to make a buck. This surprises me; after all, the last fifteen years or so have been one long litany of revelations about how predatory business practices are treated as — just business. In the foreclosure crisis, for example, thousands lost their homes to companies who foreclosed on mortgages they didn’t even own. In the meantime, one of the big controversies to hit social media last week was when crowdfunding site GiveForward closed down a fundraiser for a woman facing a near-fatal medical emergency — because she works as a porn actress.

In a way, I’m glad that I haven’t lost my capacity for outrage at human depravity and greed. It means that I haven’t completely given up on the human race. I shouldn’t be surprised at the ways people will cheerfully screw the poor and vulnerable over for a buck, but I am.

One thing that stretches the boundaries of even my cynicism, though, is people who sell untrained dogs, claiming that they’re actually highly-trained service dogs. It may happen on a smaller scale than some of the corporate misdeeds that we’ve learned about in recent years, but it so specifically targets the weak and vulnerable, the people who really need someone to be on their side, that it sounds like the sort of thing that you’d do as part of a Master’s thesis in Advanced Evil.

I’m not talking in the abstract, here: Just last week, CBS reported on widespread allegations that the service animals sold by Angel Service Dogs, Inc., aren’t trained to do — well, much of anything. According to clients of the company, their dogs have needed extensive training to even be good pets.

Christine and Dean Clifford spent $20,000 on Queenie, a dog supposedly trained to alert them to the presence of nuts or nut residue in a room. Their sons, Nolan and Ben, are highly allergic to peanuts. It turns out that Queenie is capable of nothing of the kind, and in fact, has severe behavior problems.

When the Cliffords took Queenie to the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University, the hospital reported that “she jumped on people, nipped hands, barked aggressively at certain individuals, became overwhelmed in crowds, and showed separation anxiety. Additionally, Queenie showed no aptitude for or interest in allergen detection.”

The case of Angel Service Dogs isn’t even unique. Back in November, there was the case of Compassionate Paws, Inc. As with Angel, several customers of Compassionate Paws complained that after spending thousands of dollars, they got dogs who lacked even rudimentary skills that would have qualified them as service animals. Video in a news report showed that when one of the owners tried to get their dog to lie down, he tried to shake hands instead.

There are doubtless many more cases of fraudulent “service dog” operations that haven’t floated to the top yet. It’s a shame, because this is one area where people should not have to worry about being conned.

My own partner became disabled about six years ago, and it’s brought us both into intimate contact with the nightmare that is our national healthcare system. Despite the rosy picture painted by insurance ads, the system is primarily set up to avoid giving treatment to people who need help most urgently. If nothing else good came out of the Affordable Care Act, at least it eliminated the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, a policy that is strikingly similar to refusing to sell umbrellas to anyone who’s standing in the rain.

But the point is that even in the best of circumstances, people who are trying to cope with illness or disability are already struggling against a stacked deck. You need an exquisite degree of sadism to not only deliberately exploit that pain and desperation, but add to it for nothing more than a quick buck.

Even worse, every time an Angel Service Dogs or Compassionate Paws shows up in the news, it makes it that much harder for the people who really are trying to do an honest job. The people who train real service dogs are consummate professionals, who put hundred of hours into each dogs. Their work is important, but with every report of fraud, people have to look a little more closely to see if they’re the real thing.

In Carl Sandburg’s poem “To Billy Sunday,” he targeted a famous evangelist of the day for exploiting his audience’s religious faith and fear of damnation to enrich himself. “You… put a smut on every human blossom that comes within reach of your rotten breath,” Sandburg wrote. It sounds very apropos for the people who use the idea of service dogs to enrich themselves.

I hope that the allegations about Angel Dogs turn out to be nothing, a bunch of froth and misconception, but the CBS article looks very comprehensive, and I don’t have much hope. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that lawmakers will notice cases like this and come down hard enough that service dogs don’t look like an easy way to make money.


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