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State lawmakers debate bill that would crack down on fake service animals

Sponsors of HB 2822, a bill that would criminalize fake service dogs, believe there are an increasing number of incidents where pet owners are intentionally misrepresenting their pet - therapy animal or emotional support animal - to be a service animal. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - A New York flyer claimed her peacock was an emotional support animal and was entitled to bring it on board a flight from Newark to Miami this week. United Airlines said no.

Dogs, pigs and turkeys have all been able board planes with the caveat that their owners needed them for emotional support.

Whether they have a doctor’s note saying their animal is part of on-going therapy or not, several Washington state lawmakers believe federal laws that provide special allowances for service animals are being abused by pet owners.

Sponsors of HB 2822, a bill that would criminalize fake service dogs, believe there are an increasing number of incidents where pet owners are intentionally misrepresenting their pet - therapy animal or emotional support animal - to be a service animal.

If caught, pet owners could face a fine up to $500.

Owners of service animals spend thousands of dollars to get their animals trained to perform specific tasks to assist their owners who are considered disabled.

Suzanne Weaver has Samee, a Collie who is a legitimate service animal that helps her with her stability issues.

“I fall to the right,” said Weaver. “My husband used to be the one who always held me up, he was always on my right balancing me, but now I have Samee doing it."

But, she is getting tired of people thinking she has a fake service dog.

“I’ve had a local restaurant block me from going in,” said Weaver. “It’s becoming very frustrating because of others claiming their pet is a service dog when it’s not."

But, for Beth Kelly of Olympia, her small dog Kiddo is not a service animal but is an emotional support animal.

“Though I do think he provides a valued service to me,” said Kelly.

She said he can sit, spin, roll over and give kisses, but those are specific tasks that qualify Kiddo to be a service animal.

“Mostly he is comfort for me,” said Kelly, who was boarding a flight from Sea-Tac Airport with Kiddo.

“It’s hard to question if a service dog is valid or not in public,” said Kelly, who would like to see freedoms to take her emotional support animal where ever she goes.

But, businesses believe a line needs to draws.

At the West Seattle Thriftway, owner Paul Kapioski likes animals and has raised money for animal welfare charities, but is supporting the bill penalizing owners of fake service dogs.

“We are very pet friendly but pets and food safety don't mix,” said Kapioski.

He said his staff have to remove several customers a week who bring in pets who are unruly, defecate on the floor and don’t act like service dogs.

“We are put into a bad situation because if it is a service animal and we ask the customer if it is, they are offended by it,” said Kapioski. “If it isn’t a service animal, the person may get upset and become belligerent.”

The American Disabilities Acts limits businesses, airlines and homeowners to asking only two questions, ‘Is that a service dog?’ and ‘What task does it perform for you?'

At Kapioski's Thriftway, they have signs at the doors stating only service dogs are allowed. Some cashiers carry the ADA rules in their pocket to advise customers of federal guidelines.

Part of the confusion stems from a problem with the Air Carrier Access Act.

In 2003, it was changed to let people with disabilities to take ‘support’ pets onto planes for free.

Owners of emotional support animals were allowed to bring them onboard, as long as they had note from the passenger’s doctor that said the pet was needed as part of a therapy program.

But, the system allows for-profit companies to sell registrations to anyone who claims they have a disability.

Service dog vests, certificates, even a note from a medical doctor are available for sale online. There’s no government screening and no double-checking for people who apply.

“There has to be something that says, 'we really need to tamp this down a bit,' ” said Joan McBride, a co-sponsor of HB 2822.

“If you have a dog that is a therapy dog or your pet, we need you not to bring those in and we need you not to say they are a service dog,” said McBride.

19 states have already enacted similar laws to McBride’s bill.

Grocers claim more is needed.

“We would like it to be something that I can spot, that truly is a certified service animal and I don't need to ask,” said Kapioski.

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