STATE NEWS: Misrepresenting Service Animals May Soon Be Illegal in Massachusetts

March 20, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

Thousands of people with disabilities across the country use service animals, primarily dogs. But some people misrepresent their personal pet dogs as service animals to reap personal benefits. In Massachusetts, a newly proposed law aims to make this act a civil offense.

Service dogs are trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person who has a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, mental, or other disability. The lack of an official service dog registry, however, has allowed people to claim falsely that their pet is a service animal. But this dishonest practice may soon be against the law in Massachusetts.

Disability advocates say that pretending your dog is a service animal is harmful to individuals who have disabilities and do need the help of a service animal.

“Our goal is to prevent abuse of the system, because animals that aren’t legitimate service dogs can give true service dogs a bad reputation, and that does a terrible disservice,” said Representative Kimberly Ferguson (R), one of the bill’s key sponsors. These phony service animals could also physically injure their owners if they aggressive.

People use fake service animals usually to gain privileges that come with such ownership, such as the right to take a dog into an airplane passenger cabin without a fee or inside restaurants or stores that may not allow animals.

Anyone can easily create the illusion that their dog is a service animal—service dog vests, capes, and “official certificates” are all available for purchase online.

“I could go online right now and get a service dog ID kit, and I certainly don’t have a service dog,” Ferguson said.

Besides cracking down on misrepresenting service dogs, the proposed law also aims to expose fake operations that sell untrained or poorly trained service dogs to the disabled.

This is unfair and harmful to someone with a disability, because they believe they are getting a well-trained dog when this is not the case.

This proposed Massachusetts law follows similar service animal laws in Florida and Colorado. If the new law passes, those misrepresenting service dogs could be fined up to $500 and required to do 30 hours of community service.

While the law will apply to service dogs, it will not apply to those offering only psychological support—such as emotional support dogs, comfort dogs, and therapy dogs.