By Taylor Brown
INDIANAPOLIS — The broadness of service dog regulations is letting some Hoosiers have their uncertified loyal companion with them at all times.
The misuse of emotional support animals and service dogs is a problem facing the state, and even the country.
The misrepresentation of service dogs has led to many untrained dogs being in airports, restaurants and other businesses resulting in disruption to the public and distress to those who need service animals to operate each day. While many Hoosiers see an issue with the phony pooches, no one is sure how to solve the issue.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t screw up what’s going right,” Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, said.
Leising first became concerned about the misuse of the broad term of service animals throughout the state once a minster asked a member of his congregation to remove a fake service dog that was growling at other members during service. The owner ended up suing the church for removing the dog. Leising was also contacted about a similar situation that happened in a hospital.
Leising drafted a bill in an effort to weed out false service dogs. Senate Bill 293, in its original form, was written to require service dogs to be certified by a registered veterinarian to be in “good health.”
During the bill’s first committee hearing, however, Leising realized the problem is more complicated than anticipated.
Service animals vs. emotional support animal
Graphic created by Ashley Shuler.
Leising had been unaware of the three federal acts that provide guidelines for service animals, including health protocol.
Service dogs are already required to follow the local vaccine and health rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has individually been trained to do work or perform tasks for someone with a disability. The tasks the dog accomplish must be directly related to its handler’s disability. Service dogs can be trained to do things like opening doors, turning on lights and predicting seizures.
Service dogs aren’t the only animals getting misrepresented. Owners also are pretending their pets are emotional support animals to get out of paying for fees in housing and boarding on planes. The term emotional support animals is given to animals who provide comfort for its owner. They do not provide work or complete tasks for its owner and therefore they are not protected under the ADA. Emotional support animals are not allowed to be in public with their owners. While they are not protected under the ADA, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which means those who need emotional support animals cannot be denied housing.
Gretchen White, a member of the Indiana Apartment Association, noted to the Senate Agricultural committee that her members have been seeing an increase of misuse of emotional support animals.
“In 2015 [one of our members] approved 114 reasonable accommodation requests for emotional support animals. In 2016, they approved 276 of the same type of reasonable accommodation request,” White said.
White emphasized that the misuse of these accommodations not only put a burden on landlords, but is also unfair to those who truly need the animal.
Leising decided to see just how easy it was to misrepresent a service dog. Leising went on the internet and without showing any kind of certification, she bought a service dog vest for $35. In addition to the vest she also received a stack of cards that read, “I am a service animal and my right to accompany my handler is protected by federal law.” The card also states that anyone is only allowed to ask the handler two questions. One being “Is this a service dog?” and the other “What tasks does this service animal perform for you?”
Jillian Ashton, executive director of Indiana Canine Assistance Network, said it is difficult to understand the difference between a legitimate and fake service animal in Indiana because of the very broad federal laws.
“Someone can answer yes to the first question, is that a service dog. And the second question, what does that dog do for you they might be like it provides me comfort or it turns on the light switch for me or they can answer that question whatever way they want to,” Ashton said.
Ashton said that some people simply do not know the rules. For example, they might bring an emotional support animals on a plane.
“A service dog has public access so that’s different. Public access means the dog can go wherever their client goes. A therapy animal doesn’t necessarily get to go wherever a person goes,” Ashton said. “However, a lot of people are using the obtuseness of the law, the ADA requirements, they’re using the obtuseness to justify what they’re doing.”
Guide dog handler Bonnie Bomer has experienced how dangerous falsifying a service animal can be.
“I’ve had situations in which a Chihuahua ran up and bit my service dog, my guide dog, my working guide dog in the face. She was freaked. She didn’t like little dogs after that,” Bomer told lawmakers during the Senate committee hearing. “I had to call the guide dog school and have them come back out and do retraining with her to get her re-socialized with little dogs.”
Bomer also told the committee she was concerned about having to receive an additional veterinarian examination under Leising’s bill. Bomer pulled out an already thick stack of all of her dog’s vet papers and wasn’t thrilled to possibly be required to carry another.
How to solve the problem?
While the committee agreed phony service dogs is a major issue, no one had a clear vision for how to fix the problem.
Sally Irvin, executive director of Assistance Dogs International, expressed to the senators that one step in the right direction to potentially solving the issue is to educate the public on the expectations of how service dogs should act. Irvin argued that is where people would start to see a separation between legitimate users and fraudulent users of service dogs.
Irvin encouraged legislators to look into how other states throughout the country are handling the issue. Some states have laws that make it illegal to impersonate someone with a disability and a false service dog and attach a penalty with it.
“Now the question is asked, how do you enforce it?” Irvin said. “And that is the tough one because the dog would have to be acting out of behavior for you to even identify it. That is difficult.”
While it may be difficult, Irvin noted it wasn’t impossible. She said states such as Colorado have worked closely with their businesses to study normal behavior and actions of legitimate service dogs. Some states have provided training for businesses to help them identify fake service dogs. Business owners also put signs on their doors that read, “We accept legitimate service dogs” to scare away imposters.
After listening to concerned citizens, Leising knew her health record bill wasn’t the correct way to fix the problem. Leising and the committee amended the bill to turn it into a study program. If passed, a study committee would look at state and federal law regarding service dogs. They’d also work to determine the rights of service animals and emotional support animals in public areas.
The summer study version of the bill unanimously passed the Senate, and on Thursday, it unanimously passed a House committee.
“I am very appreciative of being able to go in public with my trained guide dog and be as independent as possible,” guide dog handler Theresa Weaver said. “It’s my hope to be able to continue to do so.”
Taylor Brown is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.