Service dogs may be tempting to pet, but a proposed Connecticut law would make it a crime to intentionally interfere with their duties.
People who rely on guide and service dogs to help them cope with anything from blindness to post-traumatic stress to bipolar disorder have requested the legislation. They say it's not uncommon for members of the public to purposely distract the animals, even if the dog is wearing a vest identifying it as a service animal.
"I wish I could say that people understand, or that they respect us when we ask them not to distract our dogs, but they don't," Christine Elkins, of Bristol, recently told members of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee. She said a man once followed her to the parking lot of a store and banged on her car window after she asked him to please stop distracting her dog.
Elkins has balance and mobility problems. She said she could fall and end up living her life in a wheelchair if her dog is distracted.
Connecticut is one of the few states without some variation of a law on the books prohibiting the interference with or harassment of service animals, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University. For example, in Georgia, anyone who knowingly and intentionally harasses or attempts to harass an assistance dog and knows the animal is an assistance dog, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by not less than 90 days in prison or a fine not to exceed $500, or both.
Under the bill that cleared the Connecticut Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, people who intentionally interfere with an assistance animal could face a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in prison.
"It is surprising that it is not a crime in Connecticut to harass or otherwise interfere with a guide/assistance dog or the dog's handler," wrote the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, in testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee. "Connecticut is behind less progressive states with regard to protecting the rights of guide/assistance dogs and their handlers."
Some lawmakers have voiced concerns that someone who just wants to be friendly with a dog might face serious consequences under this legislation. That prompted the committee to amend the bill to make it clear it's only targeting any person who "intentionally interferes" with the service animal's duties. The bill now awaits further action in the House of Representatives.
Current Connecticut law requires guide dogs to be on leashes, licensed and wearing harnesses or orange-colored leashes and collars that ensure they're recognized as service animals. There are also provisions that allow impaired people and their service dogs to use public transportation and enter any place of public accommodation - an issue the commission said it receives many complaints about from people with disabilities who've been denied access.