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When People Question If I Have a 'Real' Service Dog

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I have stage 4 lung cancer. It has spread to my brain and spine. The drugs I take to keep me alive come with all sorts of debilitating side effects. Fear that I’d have an “episode” while out in public kept me housebound for nearly a year.

A friend suggested I get a service dog trained to calm me in the event of a panic attack. So we did some research and found a woman in our area who trains service dogs. Then she worked with us to make sure my new service dog, a poodle named Frisco, would always follow my commands.

And while none of this is anyone’s business but mine, it seems every time I venture out with Frisco, I’m forced to field invasive questions about why I have a service dog. Worse yet, I’ve had people flat-out refuse to allow Frisco and me to enter their place of business.

A few months ago, for example, I went out to lunch with my boys and some cousins to a popular deli. We all walked into the front entrance, as it was the most direct route to the outside patio. The hostess looked at Frisco and I and told us we had to walk around the back.

I was shocked by this interaction and said, “No, my dog is a service dog and we have a right to enter through the restaurant.” She rolled her eyes and walked away. However, seconds later another hostess approached and reiterated that my dog was not allowed to come inside the restaurant.

“He’s a service dog. It’s against the law to keep him out,” I challenged. She then proceeded to tell me that people often use service jackets on their dogs and they’re not “real” service dogs. “Well,” I explained, “that should not be my problem.” Frisco and I walked past her while my boys and cousin continued to get an earful from her about my dog.

It’s truly amazing that I have had to deal with this issue. And it happens over and over again. Last February, I actually had an office manager at my oncologist’s office put me through the same stressful craziness. I walked in for my appointment already not feeling great. The office manager stopped Frisco, my husband and me from entering the exam room. “No dogs allowed, even service dogs,” she insisted. And like the hostess, she passive-aggressively suggested that people often use fake service jackets to get their dog into offices.

It’s one thing to get me angry. But when you get my husband angry, watch out. He reported the woman to UCLA hospital management. They, of course, apologized. But it did nothing to quell my anxiety or dampen my anger.

Since then, I’ve looked up the specifics of laws about service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilties Act, a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless, for example, the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or the dog is not housebroken.

Frisco has never violated either exception. Yet, I continue to put up with these annoying questions strangers ask about Frisco. It’s none of anyone’s business to know why I have a service dog, just as it’s no one’s business to know why a person with a placard parks in a handicapped spot.

But as the hostess and the office manager and countless others like to point out, there are lots of people out there with fake service dogs. If people think this is a victimless crime, they are wrong. So, to the people who feel they somehow are gaming the system by strapping a service jacket on their family pet and plopping him in their shopping cart, just know that your actions have consequences. You’re adding stress to the thousands of people with real service dogs and real health problems.

Unlike a handicap placard, service dog jackets can be obtained by anyone with access to the Internet and a willingness to lie. Surviving stage 4 cancer is my only priority right now. I don’t have time to lobby the government to start cracking down on the cheats who have robbed me of my right to privacy. So if there’s someone out there with a will and a way, I’m passing the baton to you.

Marlene and her service dog, Frisco

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: December 28, 2015
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