State lawmakers debate cracking down on fake service animals

Under the measure, an individual would be charged $300 for the first offense, $600 for the second and up to $1,000 for the third. Kagan said the penalty structure for the offenses is the same as what is charged to someone who uses a fake disabled parking space decal.

AURORA | Angela Eaton and Kathy Haley both train service dogs.

Eaton, executive director of Canine Partners of the Rockies, trains mobility service dogs to assist people with disabilities other than vision or hearing impairment. Haley, an Air Force veteran and certified dog trainer, helps other veterans train their dogs for post traumatic stress therapy.

Both have varying views on House Bill 1308, a measure to crack down on using fake service animals by making the act a misdemeanor carrying hefty fines.

“It’s definitely needed,” said Eaton. “We’ve had multiple incidences where our dogs were attacked by another dog who was not a service animal.”  Eaton said owners are then put at risk when their dogs are not capable of helping them get around.

Haley said she is concerned HB 1308 would specifically impact veterans who use service dogs to cope with post traumatic stress. She said each dog is trained differently, and that a business owner might mistake a dog circling its owner as the dog being rowdy, when it has in fact been trained to bark in response to a specific PTSD symptom.

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Arkeo, a service dog, looks up at her owner inside Bold Lead Designs, a service dog equipment store in Aurora, March 22. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Levi wears a service dog vest March 22 while waiting inside Bold Lead Designs, a store in Aurora that sells dog leashes and service dog equipment. Levi, a golden retriever, is a mobility service dog trained by Canine Partners of the Rockies. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Kathy Haley stands with her service dog Arkeo March 22 as she discusses a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to pass off a pet as a service animal. Haley is an Air Force veteran and certified professional dog trainer. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Levi, a mobility service dog, sits in the Bold Lead Designs storefront March 22. The Aurora business on Norfolk Street creates and sells equipment for service dogs. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Arkeo obeys a command March 22 from Kathy Haley, owner and certifed professional dog trainer. Haley is an Air Force veteran who has a service dog, Arkeo, to help her with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Arkeo obeys her owner's command and lays down inside Bold Lead Designs, a service dog equipment shop in Aurora, March 22. Kathy Haley is Arkeo's owner and a certifed professional dog trainer. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

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Mobility service dog, Levi, stands inside a leash and service dog equipment store March 22. Levi is a golden retriever trained by Canine Parners of the Rockies. (Susan Gonzalez/Aurora Sentinel)

Haley said she is also worried veterans who receive inquiries from police about their service animal would feel further alienated and deterred from socializing in public.

She said the solution should not be focused on fining the owner, but instead on educating businesses so they can remove an animal when it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

HB 1308’s prime sponsors are state Sen. Linda Newell and Rep. Daniel Kagan, both Democrats. It passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee late Tuesday.

Kagan said the law is not only meant to protect service animals and their owners, but also give businesses recourse for someone who is repeatedly abusing the law as a way to bring a pet into an establishment.

“Under current law, there is nothing they can do about it,” Kagan said.

Under federal law, businesses can only ask individuals if an animal is a service animal and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. Individuals are not required to discuss their specific disability and they are also not required to have any specific type of certification.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.  The state also doesn’t require service animals to wear vest or for owners to have proof of training.

“As far as people who have a legitimate need for service animals, but don’t want to be subject to suspicion and questioning as a result of bringing their animal into an establishment, this bill will help — not hurt — those who legitimately need service animals,” Kagan said. “We have not changed any of the requirements for bringing a service animal into an establishment.”

Under the measure, an individual would be charged $300 for the first offense, $600 for the second and up to $1,000 for the third. Kagan said the penalty structure is the same as what is charged to someone who uses a fake disabled parking placard.

The bill has received support from the ARC of Colorado, the Colorado Retail Council and  the County Sheriffs of Colorado. A representative from King Soopers also testified in support.

 Caitlin Brady, a member of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and service animal user,  testified in support of the bill.

“It’s been more of a challenge to go out publicly and deal with day-to-day living,” Brady said, recounting the times she was turned away from establishments because of other dog owners. “Once told I was not allowed to go inside a restaurant because the previous service dog owner let their dog on the bench and let it eat off the table,” she said.

“It’s only going to be enforceable in the most egregious and obvious cases where it’s quite clear the person is misrepresenting the facts,” Kagan said during a hearing for the bill March 22 by the state House Judiciary Committee. He said only egregious, repeat offenders would be prosecuted if the measure passed.

“I think it could be written much better,” James W. Clark testified, who opposed the bill. “How can other people look at me on the street and say you’re not truly disabled without violating HIPAA laws? What level of training do the police have in dealing with dog issues with people who many times have mental problems?” 

During the meeting several people testified in opposition to the bill, citing the burden it would put on low-income individuals with disabilities.

Aurora City Council members on the city’s Federal, State and Intergovernmental Relations committee unanimously opposed the legislation at a meeting in March. Those members include Angela Lawson, Sally Mounier and Charlie Richardson, who all said they supported the concept of providing more severe consequences for people misrepresenting service dogs, but did not believe the measure would be enforceable.

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