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Proposed state bill cracks down on fake service dogs

Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary hears a bill Sept. 12 that would penalize the misrepresentation of untrained dogs as service animals. PHOTO COURTESY CAROLYN BARRETT

It’s typing a quick Google search, filling out a form for false credentials at a small fee and purchasing a “service dog” vest on Amazon, and a household pet is afforded the rights of public access mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Soon, however, this manipulation of federal law could be banned by the state government, with a bill calling for the misrepresentation of a pet dog as a service animal to be a civil offense, which was heard before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday. Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, a Holden Republican, is the bill’s key sponsor.

By definition, a service dog is one that has been properly trained to cater to the specific needs of a person with disabilities, according to the ADA.

Under the proposed bill, any individual who intentionally misrepresents their dog by bringing the animal into a place of public accommodation where pets are not permitted, and has some form of false identification — leash, vest, credentials — implying the dog is a service animal, may have their pet removed from the area by police or an animal control officer, be assigned community service or face a fine in absence of service.

The practice of individuals dishonestly claiming their animal is a service dog has become so common that Cathy Zemaitis, spokesperson for NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, said it is “an epidemic in the United States.”

In reality, Zemaitis said, the extensive training for a service dog at NEADS can take up to two years, and even then, only 50 percent of their dogs are matched with a person to meet their particular needs, following an application, interview and two-week stay with the dog on campus.

“We place dogs with people with permanent, physical disabilities,” Zemaitis said. “Our puppies are purpose-bred, meaning that they’re bred with the idea that this will be a service dog litter. It is a rigorous process.”

Zemaitis said the tipping point for NEADS was when staff began hearing that people were using the organization’s logo, and putting it on their dog, as a means of claiming their animal had been trained by the group.

NEADS began working with Ferguson approximately a year and half ago, starting with only an idea of the bill, Zemaitis said. From there, they formed a committee of internal and external constituents to look at what states already had bills cracking down on fake service dogs, to model their own after.

Over the years, many have taken advantage of the wording of the federal law allowing for those with permanent disabilities to have ease of public access for their pets, Zemaitis said.

“As excited as we are with the possibility of Mass Bill 2277 passing, we are going to go forward and also try to change the wording in the federal law,” Zemaitis said.

Zemaitis said under federal law, any place that allows public access can only ask an individual two questions: Is that a service dog? What tasks does it perform to mitigate your disability?

With the passage of the bill, NEADS is aiming to begin an education piece so store and restaurant owners are more aware of what their rights are in terms of handling situations where it is suspected a dog is being falsely presented as a service animal.

“If that animal is disrupting their normal course of business, legitimate service dog or not, they can ask them to leave,” Zemaitis said. “If those people don’t leave, they can call the police with this bill, they can call the dog officer.”

So far, over 2,000 signatures in support of the bill have been collected, around 60 legislators have come on board to cosponsor the bill and letters of positive testimony have been submitted by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Kennel Club, hospital administrators and more, Zemaitis said.

Carolyn Barrett, 23, of Wakefield said she began using a service dog as a teenager for spinal muscular atrophy, and is currently on her second animal from NEADS, a black Labrador Retriever named Shadow.

The use of bogus service dogs, Barrett said, does serious harm to the disability community, delegitimizing their necessary use of these animals.

“If you’ve seen me out with Shadow, she’s hitting handicap door buttons, she’s picking things up, she’s hitting elevator buttons,” Barrett said. “Oftentimes, these fake service dogs just don’t do anything, they’re not well-trained, they’re really interested in other dogs, they’re really interested in other people.”

In light of reading about confusion surrounding the bill, Barrett emphasized that it simply calls for consequences on those who exploit the law.

“If you have a service dog that you trained on your own that does a legitimate thing to mitigate your disability and exhibits proper behavior in public, this bill is not going to affect you,” Barrett said.

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One Comment

  1. Arlinda Swartzlander

    I have been disabled for 12 years..My service animal was trained by me..I have more trouble with people and children. Sometimes young people thinking they can disrupt my animal from working. People think I am deaf with people actually trying to harm my animal. Some find it offensive when I ask them politely to leave my animal alone he is working. Parents feel he is a toy and there children should be able to climb on him..I have a vest with patches explaining don’t touch service dog. I have had people touch him while I am having problems just to feel his softness..I am so glad I was able to train him myself because I was quotes 100 thousand for my problems to have a dog do what needs to be done. My Service Animal is well trained and I take pride in this because I was able to start his training from a early age until now he is three. 5 times now he has stopped me falling and getting hurt. I was in a wheel chair for 8 years and getting hurt all the time until his help. My Zuse has been bitten by a untrained so called Service Animal while taking care of me in Lowes unprovoked. He was laying at my feet when the dog on a 10 foot lead came through the asle and bit his butt and drew blood. It took me a while to untrain him not to react to other dogs but he has now. ADI training is good but for some handicap I can not have him sit on command due to people have shouted the command and I fell when the dog listened. The animal was young but still people love to mimic you. So now I use other cues. When I stop so does he. Zuse has been trained to sit to the side but close to me while I am at the dentist. When they are done , the word done he comes over and pulls me up , waits until I can feel my legs and jump starts the movement all the while making sure I am not falling. Why I am writing this not all of us are like the others. We take great pride what our dogs can do. Because of my handicap Zuse is never further then I can touch him. I work with a second lead as well as the vest in case of times he needs to potty. Zuse helps me get out of the car and helps me to balance when standing up. So, please don’t take the ability for people that can’t afford to buy a trained dog to be able to train there’s. Zuse has blown allot of people away seeing him do his job ..I now raise and train one liter a year for people that wanted to do there own training. What better way to train by being handicap yourself and knowing how to do it? I can offer them allot smaller fee for this service for buying the animal with a jump start on training. And follow through explaining how to do it. Allot of people do not have 30 thousand up for a dog . If you do the ADI requirements it should stay with the dog if it’s sold for the people that not come up with the high fees of other trained dogs.If a dog has been ADI trained it should stay with the dog.