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Minn. bill would fine those passing off untrained pets as service animals

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Brody, a black Labrador trained as a service dog.
Brody, a black Labrador trained as a service dog, lies at the feet of Minneapolis resident Terri Krake as she speaks to reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

 Updated: 6:15 p.m. | Posted: 4:00 a.m.

Minnesota lawmakers are considering bipartisan legislation that would criminalize taking an untrained service animal out in public.

Separate measures in the state House and Senate would make it a petty misdemeanor, punishable with a $100 fine, to pass off a pet as a trained assistance animal. Subsequent infractions would be considered misdemeanors under the bills.

Terri Krake of Minneapolis has taken her black Labrador Brody everywhere she goes. Krake suffers from seizures, and Brody is trained to spot the signs, comfort her, and call for help when necessary. 

Terri Krake, who suffers from seizures, speaks to reporters
Terri Krake, who suffers from seizures, speaks to reporters at the Minnesota State Capitol Wednesday. DFL State Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope, right, is one of the authors of bipartisan legislation that would make it a crime to pass off an untrained dog as a service animal.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

At a state Capitol news conference Wednesday, Brody lay on the floor quietly as Krake told of the increasingly frequent encounters they're having in stores with untrained dogs. 

"We've run into people who've put their dogs into baby carriages, and they have mail-order capes and they lunge and they bark and they distract the dogs," Krake said. "Their owners can't get them to be quiet. To me that's not a service dog."

Krake said what's normally a 10-minute grocery run can easily turn into 45 minutes because she has to take a circuitous route through the aisles to avoid other dogs. One bit Brody and drew blood, Krake said. 

Service dogs take about two years to train, and are expected not to react if confronted by other animals.

The increasing popularity of online shopping has made it easy to buy service animal identification vests online, Peters said, and instances are growing of people putting them on untrained animals.

  Alan Peters, the executive director and founder of the New Hope-based nonprofit Can Do Canines, said untrained dogs have become a growing problem for people with legitimate service animals.

"To have dogs that are not trained well out there representing assistance dogs hurts everybody that's attached to assistance dogs," Peters said. "It hurts every person with a disability who needs that assistance on a daily basis. And it reflects on our people and our dogs."

A growing number of states are cracking down on passing off pets as trained service animals. And high-profile incidents have brought public attention to the issue.  

Last month in Phoenix, a dog that a passenger reportedly carried aboard a Southwest Airlines flight as an emotional support animal bit a child. And Delta Airlines recently tightened its animal policy after a passenger's dog attacked a man during the boarding of a flight at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Part of the confusion about service animals, Peters said, stems from different federal laws governing them. And owners of restaurants and other businesses who want to prohibit illegitimate assistance animals may not fully understand their rights.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says service animals must be accomodated in public establishments. But under the law, the animals must be trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, and the training must be directly related to the handler's disability. The ADA does not consider emotional support dogs to be service animals because they haven't been trained on a specific task.  

Regulations the U.S. Justice Department published in 2010 limit workers or staff in public facilities from inquiring about service animals. They may only ask an animal's handler if the dog is required because of a disability, and what work the dog has been trained to perform.

However airlines follow different rules. The Air Carrier Access Act defines a service animal not only as one trained in a task, but any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.

Ron Elwood with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid supports the overall goal of the bill in the state Legislature, but as written, it could harm people who rely on trained dogs.

"We have clients who require service animals to alert them when they're going into insulin shock, or having seizures. You would never know that person has a disability. And we've had instances where legitimate service animals have been excluded from places of public accommodation." 

Alan Peters at Can Do Canines admits it may be difficult to enforce any new state law, in part because there's no government licensing of service animals. But Peters said the measures may at least spark a public conversation about the difference between dogs with bona fides and those without.

A House version of the bill faces more committee action. A Senate version cleared a committee Wednesday after more than an hour of debate.