A new bill that makes it a crime for people to intentionally misrepresent a pet as a service dog passed through the Colorado House earlier this week.
Legitimate service dogs provide independence and safety for their human partners. Matilda is a hearing assistance dog who helps her handler, Kyle Walpole, by alerting him to certain sounds such as a ringing phone, a doorbell, or someone saying his name by gently nudging him. She went through two years of training to learn not only how to perform these service skills, but also to learn how to handle herself in public settings such as restaurants and grocery stores.
Walpole says it has taken decades for the public to become educated about service dogs and to respect the valuable lifeline they can be to people with disabilities. But he says the respect they have earned is in serious jeopardy because of people who try to pass off their untrained pets as a highly trained service dog. This is what prompted him to testify last week in support of the new legislation.
“Recently, I have encountered hundreds of the fakes in public,” Walpole said.
Angela Eaton, executive director of Canine Partners for the Rockies, said her program’s teams find fake service dogs to be a massive problem.
“We’ve had calls from people who just want a vest so they can fly with their dog in the passenger section of an airplane,” Eaton said. “There are well-meaning people out there who feel the dog does provide a service, but they haven’t done the proper training. I hope this bill passes so it encourages people to seek that out.”
Part of the problem is that people do not understand the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals (ESA). The following are the definitions according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
- Service Dog – “Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
- Emotional Support Animal – “These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
The ADA gives a person with a disability the right to have their service dog with them essentially everywhere they go. ESAs on the other hand, are not afforded public access rights. Even though ESAs are allowed to fly in the cabin of an airplane and can be protected under fair housing laws, they are not otherwise allowed to go anywhere that does not allow pets.
According to Rep. Daniel Kagan, an Arapahoe County Democrat who is a sponsor of the bipartisan bill, the law against service dog fraud will be enforced in much the same way as parking for the disabled is.
- $350 to $1,000 for a first offense
- $600 to $1,000 for a second offense
- $1,000 to $5,000 and up to 10 hours of community service for a third or subsequent offense
“When people go about with a pet which they are passing off as a service animal falsely, they bring the entire program into disrepute,” Kagan told the House Judiciary Committee. “The persons that derive the worst effect of that are those with a legitimate need for a service animal.”
Walpole described the problem as three-fold. First, fake service dogs destroy the reputations of legitimate service dogs. “It’s causing discrimination against legitimate guide hearing and service dogs,” he said. Secondly, dogs who are not specifically trained for public access can be a threat to both people and real service dogs they encounter. Lastly, it’s fraud. “People are defrauding things like hotels and businesses when they avoid pet fees that service dogs are afforded,” he said.
“According to the testimony we heard in committee, it’s a pretty serious problem. It’s a particularly serious problem in supermarkets, where more and more people are bringing pets and claiming that they’re service animals,” Kagan explained. “Many of these pets misrepresented as service animals are misbehaving, they’re assaulting other dogs on a regular basis, soiling the supermarket, and posing not only a security issue but a health issue.”
The problem of fake service dogs is due in large part to a multitude of websites that sell vests with patches labeling a dog as a service dog or ESA, along with bogus certifications without any proof of training whatsoever.
Featured image via Anything Pawsable