ST. PAUL—Minnesota lawmakers want to crack down on people who falsely claim their pets are true service dogs.
They have the support of many who rely on highly trained service dogs and say they're increasingly seeing the accommodation abused by owners of dogs of all sorts, from accessory-cute to vicious.
"This was brought to me by a lady who had to have her service dog put down after being attacked by a fake service dog," said Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who is pushing the bill in the House.
Under the proposal led by Green and Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, misrepresenting an animal as a service dog would become a petty misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense.
They said they don't expect a dragnet of law enforcement if the bill becomes law.
They just want the abuse to stop.
So does Terri Krake of Minneapolis, who for eight years has relied on her service dog, Brody, to help her handle a medical condition that can include seizures.
"We run into these fake dogs two to three times a week now," Krake said at a news conference announcing the plan, which has general bipartisan support. "They lunge, they bark and they distract our dogs."
A 10-minute walk in Target can now take 45 minutes, she said, as she is forced to navigate the store to avoid other dogs who are clearly not trained service dogs.
What is a service dog?
Service dogs are highly trained dogs whose skills can range from guiding the blind to opening doors and fetching objects for people with reduced mobility. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses to allow people who rely on service dogs to bring the dogs — and only dogs — into public spaces. Business are not required to allow other animals inside.
While there is no official legal standard, no government-issued dog tag, for a service dog, those in the industry say it's easy to spot one from the dog's behavior.
Alan Peters, executive director of New Hope-based Can Do Canines, which supplies service dogs, said it can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars to properly train a service dog.
Not comfort dogs — or peacocks
That's different from what are commonly called "comfort animals," which can aid in reducing a person's anxiety or assist with disorders — but aren't necessary for a person to cope with a disability.
Those animals might have value, Peters said, but there are no legal accommodations for them.
Nonetheless, the sensational story of the woman who tried to bring a comfort peacock on board an airplane would not be affected by the new proposal, several attorneys said. The FAA has begun to allow some service animals on board planes, but that's a federal issue and outside the scope of the state proposal, which is similar to laws already adopted by 20 other states.
'Moral compass is gone'
Supporters of the proposal say much of the change won't come from enforcement, but from awareness and social pressure — so owners who don't truly need their dogs inside a business will be embarrassed to try to claim their pets should be accommodated.
"We need backup. The moral compass is gone from people," said Beth Kantor of Plymouth.
She has multiple sclerosis and for six years has relied on Dazzle, a smooth-coated collie, to help her. "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. People want to bring their dog in purses and in strollers. It's easy for them to do now. On the Internet, I looked up today and you can buy a (service dog) vest for $6. ... That's the way things go now, and since there isn't a moral compass, there needs to be a legal compass."