Service animals can be life-savers for people who genuinely need their assistance.
But lawmakers in several states, including Maine, are worried that loose definitions and rules surrounding service animals may be allowing some people to abuse the system.
“I think there are a few people committing fraud,” said Barbara Archer Hirsch, lawyer for the Maine Human Rights Commission. She recently served on a Task Force created by the Maine Legislature to study service animal issues.
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It was formed out of concern for “fake service animals.”
Archer Hirsch explained that it’s difficult to prove people are misrepresenting their pets as service animals because there is no uniform test or certification for them. She said anecdotally, she hears about people bringing untrained and poorly behaved animals in public places, claiming they are necessary service animals.
She said in some cases, doctors are writing notes for emotional support dogs, and people mistakenly think they have the same thing as a service animal.
“People get their emotional support dog for housing, and then they think it’s a service dog for all purposes,” said Archer Hirsch.
Owners of service dogs say they are seeing suspicious animals in public more frequently. Suzan Morris brings her service dog, Friday, almost everywhere she goes. He assists her when her multiple sclerosis impairs her mobility, and is especially helpful for retrieving items.
“He’s very loving, and very mellow,” said Morris. She said she and Friday increasingly come across “service dogs” in public places that are misbehaving, and sometimes aggressive. “The behavior is the big give away,” she said.
Morris said people may not realize the harm they are causing when they misrepresent their pets as service dogs. She said an untrained dog can distract a service dog, even scare it. In the event of an emergency, that dog may not be ready to assist its owner if it is around a misbehaving animal.
On top of that, she feels the reputation of service dogs is being tarnished.
“Businesses are fed up, they’re asking to see IDs,” said Morris, who supports a federal testing and certification for service dogs.
The Maine Task Force has come up with several recommendations, which are being written into a new bill. They include:
-More public education about the difference between a pet, service animal, and emotional support animal (assistance animal)
-Increasing the penalty for misrepresenting a service animal to $1,000
-Encouraging Maine’s Congressional delegation to take action on a federal level
Other states considering similar laws include: Arizona, Hawaii, New York, and Virigina.