April 4, 2017 Atlanta - Jonathan Robinson gives some treats to therapy dog Fauna at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia considering penalizing people with ‘fake service dogs’

State Sen. Renee Unterman is concerned about what she calls “fake service animals.”

The Buford Republican told a Senate committee Thursday that a woman who contacted her said she took her trained service dog to the doctor. There, they met up with someone with another dog wearing a vest identifying it as a service dog.

But, Unterman said, that dog had not been properly trained and attacked the woman’s dog, causing thousands of dollars in veterinary bills.

Unterman said the state needs to look into establishing clear qualifications to separate the trained animals from “fake service animals” — meaning ones that have not been trained to give physical or emotional support. Service dogs are trained to assist people who may have an illness or disability. Therapy and emotional support dogs often help people with anxiety.

“These are highly trained dogs that cost a lot of money, and when you start mixing them with dogs who get a fake vest over the internet, you’re endangering the person,” Unterman said.

An internet search found several service animal vests and cards available for sale with no way of proving the animal is trained.

“There’s a lot of people who use service dogs for diabetes and for seizure control,” Unterman said. “If you take that dog away, just temporarily, the dog’s at the vet hospital for three days, well they’ve got to make provisions for what that dog did for them.”

Federal law prohibits airlines from requiring documentation to prove a service or emotional support animal has been trained. In June, a man who said his dog was an emotional support animal mauled a fellow passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight to San Diego.

Delta recently announced new rules for flying with service or emotional support animals. Beginning March 1, animal owners must submit online 48 hours in advance of their flight a “confirmation of animal training” form signed by the passenger indicating the animal can behave, along with proof of health or vaccinations.

Mary R. Burch, with the American Kennel Club, said people who lie about having service animals do a huge disservice to those who really need them.

“Dog owners who falsely claim a dog is a service dog so they can take it in a store, on a plane or in a restaurant don’t often understand that people with real disabilities struggled for decades to have public access for the legitimate service dogs they need to help them be more independent,” she said.

Unterman wants a Senate study committee to look into the potential need for a uniform, statewide certification process, whether Georgia should criminalize the use of what she called “fake” service animals, and if trainers need more guidelines for the therapy pets.

Nineteen states have passed laws to prevent people from passing off their pets as service animals with training or certification.

The Senate committee approved Unterman’s proposal, Senate Resolution 467, sending it to the full body for consideration.

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