Discussion: should impersonating a service dog be a punishable offense?

Just this last week, Intentional Misrepresentation of a Service Animal could soon be a crime if HB 16-1308 continues its passage through Colorado’s General Assembly. The Bill makes it an offense to bring “an animal into a place that it would otherwise not be allowed to enter by passing off a pet, therapy animal, or emotional support animal as a service animal.”

The bill brings up a great point for the rest of the nation – should impersonating a service dog be a punishable offence?

Disability Law Colorado, a nonprofit organization established to protect and promote the legal and human rights of persons with disabilities, has a lot to say on the subject.

Director of Legal Services for Disability Law Colorado Alison Daniels notes that:

“Disability Law Colorado was founded in 1976 to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Over four decades we’ve seen the difference that animals can make in a person’s life. That’s why we need education on the law rather than criminalizing behavior by people that don’t understand it.”

Nick and his service dog, Denver Image source: Disability Law Colorado)
(Nick and his service dog, Denver Image source: Disability Law Colorado)

Daniels’ concern is for the people with disabilities who simply misunderstand the law. She asks:

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“Should a person who relies on the help of an ‘assistance animal’ be charged for putting it in a vest and taking it into a restaurant? Wouldn’t education on this complex issue make more sense?”

There are four classifications of animals under current disability rights law:

1. Service Animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a dog (or miniature horse) that has been trained to perform a specific task. Business owners can ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog required because of your disability?
  2. What task does it perform? Service animals are allowed in any business open to the public.

2. Assistance, companion and emotional support animals are ONLY required to be allowed in the homes of people with disabilities. Housing providers can ask for medical documentation of the disability and need for the animal, but they cannot charge “pet rent.”

3. Therapy animals help people with disabilities in hospitals and other facilities. Unless the person who owns the therapy animal also has a disability-related need, they are not required to be allowed in housing.

4. Pets do not have to be allowed in public accommodations or housing.

 The Colorado bill only mention dogs, not horse service animals. Image source: @MichalAndersen via Flickr
The Colorado bill only mention dogs, not horse service animals. Image source: @MichalAndersen via Flickr

The Bill only covers dogs, not horses, but we are guessing that’s because you don’t see a lot of horse service animals and the chances of someone trying to pass their mini off as one is a lot smaller. According to the Bill,

“The penalty for fraudulent misrepresentation of a service animal mirrors the penalty for an offender who violates the provisions of the law concerning reserved parking for persons with disabilities.”

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Daniels wants businesses to rest assured that: “Service kangaroos or service parrots are not covered by the ADA and can be turned away. Even a qualified service animal can be excluded if it is causing a nuisance.”

Madeline Friedman is a dog trainer in New York who both trains service dogs as well as uses two herself. She told iHeartDogs:

“Although I find it offensive when someone has a ‘fake’ service dog, I don’t believe it should be an ‘offense- unless the dog is ill-behaved or has caused damage. If the dog is ill-behaved and causes damage, which damage could be a continuous annoyance to others, I think there should be a punishment of some kind to the imposter, perhaps a fine. The person and the dog should be put in a service dog imposter database which can be checked by businesses and airlines.”

Image source: @EdandEddie via Flickr
Image source: @EdandEddie via Flickr

Part of her reasoning for this is that most people get fake service dog papers simply in order to travel more easily with their dog. She cites airlines as a main culprit and feels that if they lightened up on their restrictions on pets traveling with their owners, these people wouldn’t feel the need to impersonate a service animal.

“My feeling is that the airlines make it difficult for people to travel on shorter flights with their dogs‎ by charging high fees for non-service dogs, so people feel they need to fake having a service dog. If any dog is well-behaved, they should be allowed to fly with their owner as their companion. I have flown near dogs who are better behaved than many children, yet we don’t see a ‘Children’s Section’ on airplanes, nor do we see any restrictions on flying with babies and children, such as their having to be well-behaved (which, often, they are not, and parents do not “parent” these days and teach or discipline children when they are annoying other travelers, or people in stores and restaurants – yet, dogs are not allowed in most public places unless they are service dogs.”

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Hasn’t every dog owner had this same thought occur to them at least once or twice while on a flight or in a store? And we know that each of us has also seen the “service dog” that acts as though it’s never been to a single day of obedience class, or has reactivity issues that were never addressed.

Friedman does find these cases personally offensive, since her dogs are highly trained, which took years of working with a trainers – whereas often the dogs impersonating service animals are not trained at all.

The bottom-line to her is the difference between well-behaved and not.

“I feel any clean and well-behaved dog should have access to public places so people would not feel the need to have ‘imposter’ service dogs,” Friedman says.

What do you think? Should impersonating a service dog be punishable as a criminal offense? Share your opinion with us in the comment section!

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