Massachusetts may toughen criteria for service animals

Service dog (Michael Darby, Pixabay)Massachusetts legislators are attempting to take aim at people who pretend that their pet is a service animal, as well as companies that sell untrained or poorly trained service dogs.

A bill filed this month by the state legislature, modeled after similar laws in Florida and Colorado, would make it a civil offense to use fake service dogs to obtain privileges meant for the disabled. If passed, those found guilty would have to pay a fine up to $500 and perform 30 hours of community service, the Boston Globe reports.

Nebulous language in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) around service animals is part of the reason why the problem has arisen. As the Globe points out, the ADA defines a service animal as a dog or a miniature horse “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” That leaves a lot of wiggle room for less-than-honest companies to offer trained service dogs that are not nearly adequate to the needs of the disabled.

The service animal definition in the ADA does not apply to therapy dogs or emotional support animals. And the new Massachusetts bill, if passed, would not apply to these types of support animals.

There is not any nationally-accepted certification process, nor a national registry for service dogs, that potential owners can check before starting the process of getting a service dog. One organization cited by the Globe, Assistance Dogs International, offers an accreditation process for dog trainers (it does not provide or train assistance dogs), but this is just a start.

Considering that there is still a huge problem with convincing companies to allow service dogs into their premises — such as last week, when American Airlines removed a vision-impaired woman and her service dog from a flight — it’s surprising that a basic issue around service dogs, making sure they’re qualified to do their jobs, hasn’t been appropriately addressed.