New law starting in 2017 makes it illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal
By Robin Ferruggia
An unexpected greeting happened the other day as I walked into a suburban Denver area library and had a big black poodle wearing a “Service Dog” vest ran over and jumped on me.
The owner, a young woman standing at the checkout counter holding a leash in her hand, explained the dog is in training. She added the dog is gentle and the dog accompanies her to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Upon checking out, the librarian said it’s difficult for libraries or any public spaces to enforce rules regarding dogs on premises.
The librarian told me that legally there is not a lot they can do to deter those who claim to have a service animal.
“We know it’s not a service dog,” she said. “But we can only ask two questions, and her answer made sense.”
When confronted with a person who alleges to be disabled and who states their dog is a “service dog” in places of public accommodation, such as libraries or grocery stores, the only questions that may be asked are: is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? And, what work or task the is dog trained to perform?
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) define service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The work or task must be directly related to the person’s disability. However, dogs are not required to be certified, to wear any identification, to have an ID card, or to be professionally trained.
The librarian was one of many people who feel stymied by loopholes in the ADA policy that are becoming pathways for abuse by those who simply want to bring their pets with them wherever they go, who are not disabled, or those who are disabled and do not have a properly-trained, well-behaved service dog.
“The law is intentionally vague so as not to infringe on the rights of the disabled,” said Jennifer Edwards, an animal law attorney and founder of the Animal Law Center in Englewood. “It’s a fine and delicate line. There are those who take advantage of that vagueness. Having a service dog is not a free pass to any violations of the law.”
“We definitely have a handful of people who use that law (ADA) to their advantage,” said a Northern Colorado business owner who wanted to remain anonymous. “We can’t do anything. We don’t push it. They’ll just push back and make a scene or whatever. You can tell a really good service dog when you see it. With the others, we don’t know what steps to take. I’m concerned about the safety and well-being of my other customers and employees.”
According to Sally J. Irvin, vice president of the North American chapter of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), businesses are also worried about potential litigation and bad publicity, a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that works to improve training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs, provides education to the public about assistance dogs and advocates for the legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs.
“Everyone is hesitant. They don’t want to offend legitimate use of a service dog by a disabled person,” said Irvin.
Indeed, the current minimum fine for violating the ADA is $55,000.
“People and businesses need to be empowered to ask questions. Anyone can fill out a form and pay $50 to $100 for a service dog vest and ID that looks incredibly legitimate. The company avoids liability because they are not saying the person is disabled. The purchaser alleges that they are disabled and have a well-trained service dog.”
“It’s a real problem because there isn’t any recourse for the business,” said Janet Bayless, a Berthoud resident and former executive director of Colorado-based Canine Partners of the Rockies who has worked with service dogs, including PTSD service dogs, for 26 years.
“[Misrepresentation] makes it difficult for the disabled,” she said. “It is a danger to the public,” including disabled persons.
“Where is the line?” said Irvin. “How can we help disabled people and how can we protect the public?”
In June, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 16-1426 “Concerning Intentional Misrepresentation of Entitlement to An Assistance Animal” into law. The law makes it a criminal offense to misrepresent a dog as a service dog, or for someone to misrepresent themselves as a disabled person. Persons knowingly violating the law may be fined $25 for a first offense to up to $500 for a third offense. It also provides for the education of the public on the issue, including law enforcement officials. The requirements for professionals to determine someone is disabled and in need of a service dog are now specified. The new law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2017, but is it enough?
“Passing a law is a good start, but it needs some teeth in it,” said Julie Yamane, a professional dog trainer, owner of Canine Learning Center in Fort Collins, and a tester-observer for Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international organization.
Loopholes in the ADA leave many unanswered questions. How can someone tell if a dog is really a service dog? What canine behaviors justify telling the owner the dog cannot be present? Is it realistically possible for a disabled person to train their own service dog? These questions and more confront business owners, library staff and others in places of public accommodation every day.
“A service dog should be on leash at all times unless doing a task that requires them to be off lead,” said Brianne Corbett, director of Dog Operations for
Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, an ADI accredited organization that trains and places service dogs. “Dogs in training have the same access rights, as the only way to train a dog is in public, but they need to have learned their basic obedience commands before going into public.”
“People are not supposed to touch a service dog,” said Bayless. “The dog gets distracted from his job. By distracting the dog, you jeopardize the disabled person. The dog is essentially a piece of medical equipment. You wouldn’t take someone’s crutches.”
“I’ve never heard of a service dog task to be interacting with other people,” said Corbett, in response to the incident at the library. “Children may be allergic or terrified of dogs.”
“A dog can be inadvertently provoked in the wrong way by a child,” said Edwards. “That can result in a bad situation. The dog can’t misbehave, bark, or get aggressive. If the dog is rowdy or unruly call animal control.”
“Businesses should not have to deal with these behaviors,” said Corbett.
Although disabled persons are allowed to train their own service dog under the ADA, not all of them are able to do so.
“There’s a lot of controversy within the industry about self-trained dogs,” said Bayless. “Service dogs need to learn more than basic obedience skills. Very few people can train their own dogs. Professional trainers have a 30 percent success rate.” This is because of the importance of temperament with service dogs. “You cannot train temperament. You can breed it, but you don’t know until the dog is over a year old if it will be able to function as a service dog.”
“A dog is not ready to start working professionally until age two because a dog is not mature until then,” said Yamane. “A service dog can’t be reactive in any way out in public. The dog needs to be 100 percent reliable.”
Disabled people often feel the need to train the dog themselves for two reasons, said Yamane. Many people don’t have the money for a professionally-trained service dog, and the waitlist for one even if they do is a couple of years long. Using their own pet dog may appear to be the only option.
There are few professional resources for disabled persons needing help training a service dog.
Barbara Henry, a professional trainer and owner of Domino Service Dogs in Lakewood, offers classes for disabled people on how to train their own service dog. On occasion, when resources are available, she will train a dog for free.
“I think we need to redefine the phrase service dog,” said Henry. “I think we need to legally define the difference between service dogs that have sufficient training to work in the home and service dogs that have sufficient training to work in public. Service dogs should be required to pass a test in order to gain public access. I do believe Colorado should continue to support service dogs in training by allowing them to work in public, but at some point we need to assess these dogs before they go out and bite someone.”
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