Falsely claiming that a pet is a service animal could become a crime in Minnesota. The House March 26 unanimously passed a bill that makes such false claims a misdemeanor. Senate action must wait until after April 9, when state lawmakers return from break.
The legislation was brought forward by Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston). He has a constituent whose service dog had to be euthanized after it was attacked and seriously injured by a so-called fake service dog. For the first offense, misrepresenting an animal as a service dog would be a petty misdemeanor. That is punishable by a $100 fine. Lawmakers and advocates said that rather than penalize people, they’d like to see a law be used for education.
Groups that train and provide service animals applaud the legislation, as do people who rely on service animals. But other disability advocates note that if the penalty becomes law, that will bring a need for a heightened public education and awareness campaign for businesses, people with disabilities and the general public. The need for the law itself was debated last month at a Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities gathering.
Some organization representatives noted that if a law is adopted, it could have a potentially chilling effect on people who rely on service animals. One big worry is that people would be afraid of going out in public for fear of being challenged. Others asked if the state would be trying to regulate common sense.
But the counterpoint is the growing number of people who wish to take pets, especially dogs, everywhere. It is all too easy to search the Internet for a vest that can be placed on a pet, or to find websites claiming to help turn a pet into a service animal.
Erica Schmiel, legislative coordinator for the Minnesota Council on Disability, said public education will be critical if the bill is signed into law. People with disabilities who rely on service animals will be concerned about how to prove a service animal is indeed valid. That’s especially true for people who are nonverbal.
Business owners will need education as to how to properly respond when a service animal comes into an establishment. “We don’t want this to have a negative impact,” Schmiel said. The council will be among the groups working on education efforts if the bill becomes law.
Hearings on the bill in March revealed widespread abuses. Groups like Can Do Canines pointed out the years of training it takes to get a dog ready for work as a true service animal and how easy it is to spot an untrained animal.
At a March news conference and at hearings, people who rely on service dogs said they must increasingly deal with untrained animals masquerading as service dogs. Minneapolis resident Terri Krake relies on service dog Brody to help with disability that includes seizures. Krake and Brody run into fake service dogs a few times a week. They must carefully navigate stores to avoid untrained animals.
Service dog Dazzle helps Plymouth resident Beth Kantor. “I get it: People are dog lovers. They want to bring their dogs out. I love my dog, too. But my dog is there because I medically need her,” said Kantor, who has multiple sclerosis. Kantor said that because people lack moral compass, a “legal compass” is needed.
What can get confusing is how animals are classified. People with disabilities may use service animals and emotional support animals for many reasons. Service animals are animals that perform tasks that include leading a person, retrieving dropped items, pushing buttons or switches, and reminding a person to take medication. The work or task performed by the service animal must be related to the owner’s disability.
Federal civil rights laws govern the rights of a person with a service animal. States also can pass their own laws, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website.
Service animals include guide dogs, hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs, seizure dogs and SSigDOGs (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog). SSigDOGs help people with autism.
Under Title II and III of the ADA, service animals are limited to dogs. The animals must be allowed into public places with their owners.
Emotional support, therapy or comfort animals may be part of medical treatment and service as therapy animals, but they aren’t considered service animals under the ADA. Some states regulate therapy animals but the animals aren’t covered by the same federal laws protecting use of service animals.
Learn more about the different types of animals here.