Service Dog Certification: Would it WORK?

There has been a call for mandatory testing and certification for service dog teams in the United States. The reasons cited usually include complaints of people lying about a dog’s status as a service dog, dogs misbehaving in public, and wanting businesses to have the power to demand paperwork solely to gain access to goods and services. Many people think this should be a simple mandate to implement, but it’s far more complex than the general public realizes. Lawmakers within the Department of Justice (DOJ) have actually considered creating a national certification for service dog teams, but they let the idea go for a large number of reasons. As a service dog trainer and a service dog handler myself, I strongly oppose legally mandated testing and certification. Let’s dive into some of the issues with it.


Who will offer the test? Trainers and behavior consultants are overworked as it is, so it’s not likely many are going to have the time to commit to offering this kind of testing. It could also lead to trainers testing their own students, which can create conflict of interest. If trainers are not available for testing, or not enough trainers are available, who fills the gaps? Those who aren’t trainers are not educated on body language and subtle issues that trainers notice quickly, such as a tongue flick. If only some of the tests are conducted by trainers, then the tests would not be equal because trainers will likely be considered harsher for including subtle body language in the test. If NO trainers are conducting the tests, then the tests would be conducted by someone not properly educated on dogs. Trainers spend years perfecting the skills to observe and recognize the smallest signs of stress. This is not something that a person can take a single course and have proficient skills.


How will the cost of testing and certification be covered? Those with service dogs are disabled. Many cannot work and may be on a fixed income. There’s absolutely no chance that this type of operation would be free of charge for those needing it. There would need to be a way to pay those conducting the tests as well as those who would be working in offices that create and issue the identification cards or official paperwork. There’s already considerable cost to a service dog, whether the dog is acquired through an organization that provides trained dogs OR the dog is trained privately. Even organizations that do not charge for the dog directly will often have fundraising requirements. There’s also the cost of upkeep for the dog and any necessary equipment for the dog, such as a special mobility harness. It would not be fair to charge a disabled person for the ability to utilize their trained service dog, as is their protected civil right under federal ADA law.


How would teams get to the testing location? The test wouldn’t be conducted in their homes, and many disabled people cannot drive. But without the certification being proposed, they wouldn’t be able to access public transportation either, because they wouldn’t yet have the documentation. If the team lived close to the testing location, they might be able to walk. But what about those in rural areas? It may not be safe for them to walk down back roads to the testing areas. And some ride services and taxis might offer pet-friendly rides, but many areas do not have many (if ANY) drivers that accept pets. What happens if their ride is late and they arrive to their test late? Would they lose their time slot due to circumstances beyond their control? If so, they’ll now have to wait even longer to be able to work in public as a service dog team, which will be detrimental to the handler who spent time and money preparing to have their dog trained so they can regain some independence. How far would a team have to travel to a testing location? Even one location in every county would likely not be enough due to the size of some counties. Travel can already be difficult for someone with a disability, so the distance of travel to the testing site would have be taken into consideration. 


How long would teams need to wait for their scheduled test? Training any dog, let alone a service dog, is not a linear process. No one can predict exactly when a dog will be ready to move into working as a fully trained service dog. The team may seem ready and have a setback that keeps them in the training phase for several more months. Or the team may make great strides in a short amount of time and be ready sooner than expected. So signing up for a test can only be done so far in advance. In smaller towns there may not be such a long wait to get in for a test, but in areas with a larger population, the wait could be weeks or months. During that time with the proposed mandated certification, the handler would not be able to work their dog until they’ve passed these tests. A person might have a fully trained service dog that they cannot work in public for six months because testing sites are booked so far out. One could argue that the team should go to a different testing location, but remember, travel is going to be incredibly difficult for many teams. 


How would rescheduling a test work? Remember, disabilities can be very unpredictable. Someone could schedule a test weeks in advance, only to wake up that morning and realize their disability is flaring horribly, rendering them unable to travel and test. If someone waited months to get their testing appointment and then is forced to reschedule, are they now going to have to wait several more months? This could be a vicious cycle for some people, who may be forced to reschedule multiple times. 


What documentation will be necessary? A government entity would not simply allow anyone with a dog to get a government-endorsed certification. Would a note from a treating physician be required? That can be problematic for a number of reasons. A primary care physician may not feel comfortable writing a note if the condition must be treated by a specialist. A physician may require the person undergo expensive treatment before they’ll write a note, even one that simply states the person meets the ADA criteria for being disabled. There’s also the bias that some medical professionals have on the definition of disabled. Some don’t feel a condition is disabling if medication or treatment would handle the chief symptoms, and that may not cover secondary effects of a condition OR side effects from medication or treatment. Some people, even with insurance, can’t afford many medications or treatments, so if that’s a requirement from their treating medical team to obtain a note, they may not be able to get that note. Let’s also not forget that it can take months, and in some cases years, to get a consult with a specialist. After the consult, they may have to schedule months in advance for any screening or testing required by that specialist. So a person may spend years just trying to obtain a note from a treating physician. There’s also the aspect that ADA specifically defines a person with a disability as someone who, “has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or

is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn).” (Department of Justice) So the ADA definition of being disabled may be different than how a medical professional defines being disabled. None of this is even addressing how expensive it is to see a physician, nor how many people can’t afford health insurance. So how would someone prove their disability if they cannot see a physician who is willing to write a note? What kind of documentation would be required to verify the dog has been trained? Written logs can be forged, not to mention how much paperwork that would be to go through for every single service dog team applying to test. If the purpose of mandated certification is to cut down on fraud, then there would need to be stronger evidence that the dog has been trained, such as videos. Videos would take even longer to go through for every single team. That would mean entire teams of employees dedicated SOLELY to watching videos of dogs being trained. How many videos would be required? What behaviors or situations would be required to be demonstrated during training? Since disabilities affect each person differently, every single service dog team is unique, even with dogs that were trained in professional programs and placed with a handler. Choosing what kind of videos would be required to demonstrate the training process would be a massive undertaking that would have to take individuality of each team into account. This also goes back to questioning who is doing this? There simply aren’t enough trainers to go around, much less that are able to dedicate time to a project like this. A person who doesn’t have the knowledge and observation skills or knowhow of dog training would not be appropriate to review videos of training. How would they recognize improper technique? Subtle signs of stress? Again, these skills take years to refine, so training people to enter such a job would be a very long process.


What exactly would teams be tested on during a certification test? Disabilities often make people tire easily, so the test would need to be rather short to accommodate that. Not everyone has access to busy places like a shopping mall to train or test, so would only some teams be tested in those places? If someone tests in their home area and it’s a rural area with few businesses, how does that prove they are skilled enough to handle a much busier environment like an amusement park? How does that create a standard? Would there be multiple tests for different environments, or multiple levels of certification? That makes the testing process longer and more stressful for someone who is already at a disadvantage due to being disabled. If the test were to be conducted in a government facility, that would mean teams are not being tested in the real world. How does that demonstrate readiness to function in the real world? Doing testing stations in one room or even a single building is vastly different from how a working service dog team operates. Are teams only being tested on basic manners? How would that prevent people from fraudulently getting into the program so their dog can hold said certification and go everywhere? Are teams only being tested on service dog tasks? Task training alone isn’t enough to train a dog to work in the general public. 


This brings up another point. How are tasks being tested? Tasks are the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal. So if the test is for service animal team certification, then verifying that the dog is task-trained would have to be part of it. This gets tricky! Some tasks can’t simply be performed on demand. It would be dangerous to require someone with diabetes to take too much insulin or fast so they can demonstrate their dog performing a diabetic alert. It would be dangerous to expose a person with epilepsy to strobe lights to induce a seizure so they can demonstrate their dog performing a seizure alert. It would be unethical to induce a panic attack on someone with an anxiety disorder to demonstrate their dog performing an anxiety alert. For scent-based tasks, the handler could potentially bring a scent sample to hide on their body to verify the dog detecting and alerting to the scent, but scent samples have to be carefully stored and then thawed to be used. Would allergen detection teams have to bring their own samples of their particular allergen? Those not only have to be stored carefully, but handled very carefully due to cross contamination risks. For some of these tasks that would be very tricky to perform in front of a tester, the teams could be required to submit video evidence of these tasks instead, but then that removes the pressure of performing the tasks during the live test. If only some teams are required to demonstrate all of their tasks during a live test in front of a tester, then the test would not be fair to teams who WOULD have to perform all of their tasks in that setting. The tester is an added pressure to both the handler and the dog. What if a team is multipurpose, such as a dog trained to assist with both diabetes and PTSD? Would they be tested on tasks for each condition? That’s not equal to teams who only work with one disability and their test would be much harder because there is more for them to be scored on. How would testers be sure that the tasks each team uses actually directly mitigate the disability? Each disability is super unique, so what works for one person won’t work for ninety-nine others. ADA laws states that the tasks must directly mitigate the disability, so under the proposed mandated certification, the handler would have to somehow prove that the task directly mitigates their disability prior to testing. If someone has a back issue, would they have to bring in X rays to show they have a bad back and therefore their dog retrieving something mitigates that? Would a person who has suffered traumatic brain injury have to bring in a brain scan to show the parts of their brain that don’t function properly and cause the handler to become disoriented and therefore the dog guiding them mitigates that? If the government is requiring a certification for the team, then it’s like the team will not only have to prove the dog is task-trained, but that each task mitigates each disability in some way. Since disabilities affect people differently, there would need to be a way to prove exactly how the disability affects the individual, thus proving that the dog’s tasks directly mitigate it. This would be very burdensome on the disabled individual and could be nearly impossible for some disabilities. Remember, medical care can be difficult to access, so the necessary tests to show a tester exactly how their disability affects them may not be accessible to each person. 


Some disabilities are triggered or significantly worsened by stress, so how would those individuals be accommodated? Stress can trigger a number of medical conditions, including panic attacks, rashes, asthma, seizures, vertigo, even loss of consciousness. This will impact how well the team performs during the test. If the test is taken with an alternative handler, it won’t prove that the handler themselves has adequate control of the dog. Sometimes a flare in a disability can be quickly resolved and the handler may be able to return to the test within a few minutes. But some disabilities will affect the person for the rest of the day or even a few days. If this causes the person to be medically unable to undergo the test that will earn them the service dog team certification, will they no longer be eligible to work with a service dog that is trained to mitigate those disabilities specifically? That would defeat the entire purpose of the ADA laws.


How valuable is a single test in reality? A test is merely a snapshot in time. Any trainer could tell you that a single test is not enough to determine how well trained a dog really is. The dog could be having a really good day and perform much better than expected, or the dog could be having a really bad day and blow the test when he is otherwise extremely biddable. A single test is truly not enough information about a team. So would more than one test be required? This would circle back to all the previous issues about cost, scheduling, and travel to the test.  


Let’s examine the idea of official government paperwork and ID cards. Even after a team passes a test, it would take weeks for the official documents to come in the mail. This would mean one of two things would have to happen: 1) the team will continue to have no public access rights until those official documents come in the mail, or 2) they would have to be issued temporary paperwork, similar to a temporary driver’s license and businesses would have to learn how to read and detect fraud on 2 different pieces of paperwork. The current ADA laws as they stand in 2023 state that businesses cannot ask for any kind of paperwork, identification, or certification. (Department of Justice) Despite this fact, there are websites that sell ID cards and papers to anyone with a credit card. These websites do not require any proof that the dog has been trained in accordance with the ADA laws, nor any proof that the animal in question is even a dog! There are stories across various social media platforms about people who have registered other animals or even inanimate objects as service animals and received the paperwork and ID cards indicating that the animal or object is a service animal protected by federal law. These documents and cards are fraudulent unless the dog and handler meet the ADA laws, in which case they don’t need such documents or IDs in the first place. Most service dog handlers have experienced an access challenge (a business attempting to deny access to the team) when they were asked for paperwork and told no such thing exists. Oftentimes they’ll be told that the last team who came in had an ID card, so if they don’t provide one, then they must not be a real service dog team and access will be denied. In current legislation, this is not legal, but many companies are not ensuring their employees are properly educated on service dog laws. The ADA website makes this statement about the websites that sell these ID cards and paperwork, “There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.” (Department of Justice) Not only are businesses not permitted to ask for such documents, but these documents are NOT proof of a dog’s status as a service dog. Under the proposed mandated certification, businesses would require such certification for teams prior to being allowed access. How are businesses supposed to know which ones are real and which ones are fake? As it stands, businesses often don’t even educate employees that such IDs don’t exist! If such things become law, businesses will have an even more difficult time with it. What happens if they let in a team that has an ID card, but is later determined the card was fake? What about a business who denies access to a team by citing they believe the ID card is fake, but is a government-issued ID? This isn’t the same as denying someone an alcoholic beverage, this would be denying access to goods and services that might be life-saving, like groceries, pharmacies, doctor’s offices! How would these situations be handled? Even if local law enforcement was called, it’s unlikely any action would be taken since ADA laws are considered civil rather than criminal. These issues would then have to be reported to the DOJ, and reports can take months or years to have any type of action taken. With current reporting procedures, service dog handlers often voice frustration with the lack of action taken by the DOJ against businesses who violate ADA laws. If teams are required to be certified by the government and still denied access, this process will become even slower and the DOJ even more bogged down by reports of violations. Then there’s the issue of someone forgetting to bring their government-issued paperwork or ID card. Again, this is not the same as being unable to purchase alcohol or tobacco. If they forgot their paperwork or ID card, how are they going to access goods and services like people who AREN’T disabled and depending on a service dog to maintain independence? Remember, travel can be extremely difficult for someone who is disabled, even if they have access to public transportation or private transportation, returning home to pick up the items they forgot may not be an option. This could mean being unable to pick up life-saving medication or groceries for the week. If the paperwork was digital and the handler doesn’t have a smartphone or their phone battery dies, then they would be stuck without the paperwork they need to provide for access. 


The entire purpose of the ADA laws was to ensure EQUAL access for the disabled population. When able-bodied people aren’t required to show paperwork and ask for permission to access goods and services, ADA laws prevent businesses from doing it to disabled people. Doing so would constitute treating someone “less favorably” than others. In the United States, there are certain protected classes that have laws banning the discrimination or segregation of them. The DOJ declares these to be protected classes, “The Division enforces federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), disability, religion, familial status, national origin, and citizenship status.” (Department of Justice) If one of these groups is required to show proof that they are allowed the same access as everyone else, then the access is no longer equal, it is conditional. Under the current ADA laws, service dogs are considered medical equipment, the same as a wheelchair or oxygen tank. If service dog teams are required to provide documentation for access, then anyone with a medical device would have to be asked for documentation for a medical device, be it a wheelchair, walker, cane, oxygen tank, inhaler, insulin pump, glucose tablets, EpiPen, or prosthetic limb. The service animal laws do allow businesses to ask two questions prior to entry: “1) Is this a service animal required because of a disability? 2) What task or work has the animal been trained to perform?” (Department of Justice) If a handler refuses to answer the questions, a business can deny access. There are also times when a business may request the animal be removed from the premises: “The dog is not housebroken. The dog is out of control, and the person cannot get the dog under control.” (Department of Justice) Quite often when someone reports to a business employee that a dog, whether marked as a service dog or not, is out of control or is not housebroken, the employee does not take action out of fear of retaliation. The reality is that the law was written so that businesses can maintain rights to run their business without disruption while also maintaining the rights of disabled individuals who have a service dog. Requiring tests and certification for service dog teams will not resolve the problem of pets being passed off as service dogs, but it would go a long way to harm the disabled people who rely on their service dogs to function day-to-day. 


Abrea Hensley, the author of the Facebook page Flirty the Miniature Service Horse, put it excellently: “The Department of Justice considered a permit system when the service animal portion of the law was revisited in 2011. Coincidentally, this is when they limited the use of service animals to dogs and mini horses. Prior to that, there were no species limits and it was being abused by some people who were using their python was a service animal, or Capuchin monkeys (monkeys carry diseases that are easily communicable to humans, so they are too much of a health risk to allow). Here’s are some of the reasons they decided that registration/permits/certification couldn’t be done (for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to use ID as an overall reference to a permit, registration, certification, etc.):


– The entire purpose of the ADA is to provide equal access to disabled people and prevent discrimination. Able folks don’t have to show an ID just to walk into WalMart. People with other forms of disabilities that require other types of medical equipment (which is the legal classification of a service animal) don’t need to show ID just to walk in. Requiring this only of one class of disabled people (those who need a specific type of medical equipment, i.e. a service dog/mini horse) would be discrimination.

– What happens if we forget or lose our ID? I’m not exaggerating when I say that people would die if they were refused entry due to not having their ID. We tend to be on medications that we absolutely must have and will die without. 

– If businesses can’t even keep straight the very simple fact that there is no such thing as registration/ID right now, why would we ever think they would be able to tell a fake ID from a real one? It’d be like people who use fake IDs to get alcohol while underage, except way worse. We aren’t just talking not being able to buy a drink if they incorrectly think your ID is fake, we’re talking not being allowed to daily functions, like buying food. Also, thinking someone’s ID is fake and refusing them and their service animal would have major consequences – this would be an instant and unwinnable lawsuit that would cost the company thousands of dollars. Businesses would be terrified and never say an ID is fake unless it’s glaringly obvious that it is.

-Also, if ID is required for a person to enter a business with their service animal, it can be assumed that businesses would get in trouble for allowing people to enter with animals without presenting ID or for accepting a fake ID. This becomes a major catch 22 – damned to an expensive lawsuit if they incorrectly think an ID is fake, damned to an expensive fine if they get caught accepting a fake ID. 


“Even if we ignore the discrimination issue, there are quite a few other issues. The government would never pass out permits/IDs without having some sort of testing process to verify that the dog/mini horse is a service animal. This leads to a whole new set of problems:

-This would require creating a massive new government organization that would be on the same scale as the DMV. In order to be accessible to all disabled folks and therefore not discriminate based on their location, there would need to be an office in every city. 

-Transportation would have to be provided to those who don’t or can’t drive, which is a decent sized portion of the disabled community

-The startup costs alone to figure out how to run the system, educate people and businesses, rent space in buildings, and implement the process would massive. Then you have millions of dollars in cost per year. How would you like to see this paid for, by having your taxes increased? It would not only be cost prohibitive to the disabled who often live on a very small fixed income, like SSI, if they had to pay for ID on top of the costs of the animal itself (which can easily be $15,000 or more to buy a trained service dog from a program. $75,000 is not at all unheard of for types of service animals that require more training than others, like guide animals), it would be discriminatory to require only this one group of disabled people to pay a fee to the government for the use of what is legally classified as medical equipment. 

– Who does the testing? It has to be done by a single organization in order for it to be administered consistently and fairly. The two international service dog organizations that were considered wouldn’t work. Both wanted exclusive testing contracts, but both refuse to accept things that are currently covered by the ADA. One organization refuses to accept miniature horses, the other refuses to accept psychiatric service dogs/mini horses. Do we include testing responsibilities in the job description of the government organization we are creating to handle the actual certification process? That’s even more cost prohibitive than just setting up system to provide the IDs, especially when you consider how much training would have to go into each and every tester so they can adequately evaluate each individual animal and type of service that they provide.

– How do we develop a testing system that covers all different types of service animals and different tasks that they can provide? Do we provoke a seizure in a person who has a seizure alert dog just so we can test the dog’s ability to task? Do we make a person with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardic Syndrome get up and down repeatedly until it provokes a tachycardic episode and they faint so the task can be tested and proven? Or provoke an anyphalactic response in a person with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome? I think you get my point – there is no way to have all handlers go in to a testing facility and safely have their service dog/mini horse demonstrate their task so it can be verified.


“If the large group of government officials, legal experts, handlers, and health care professionals that worked on the ADA revisions couldn’t come up with a solution to these issues, who would you suggest do it? Not to mention the thousands of service dog/mini horse handlers who have tried collectively to put our minds together to come up with a viable solution to these issues and come up empty. 


“The means to reduce or significantly eliminate the issue of people fraudulently portraying their animals as service animals already exists. Businesses don’t use them and their employees usually have no clue this system even exists. If businesses would actually do their due diligence to appropriately educate their staff and not just allow Fido in because he is wearing a vest, and eject any animals that pass the two legal questions that can be asked if they start misbehaving instead of just whining about fake service animals, that would go a very long way towards reducing the issue. If the government would actually prosecute the offenders and made sure there was media coverage of the first few cases and a few others here and there, people wouldn’t be so eager to slap a vest on Fido and head to the grocery store.”


Works Cited

Department of Justice. “Civil Rights Division | Civil Rights Division.” Department of Justice, 2006, Accessed 24 September 2023.

Department of Justice. “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.”, 20 July 2015, Accessed 24 September 2023.

Department of Justice. “Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act.”, 1990, Accessed 23 September 2023.

Department of Justice. “Service Animals.”, 2010, Accessed 24 September 2023.