Proposed measures could weaken service animal law

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo A dog stands in a shopping cart in 2018 at Target in Hilo.

While a law prohibiting people from falsely claiming an ordinary dog is a service dog successfully passed last year, two bills recently introduced in the Legislature would broaden the definition of service dogs to include emotional support animals.

The law implemented this year made “misrepresentation of a service animal” an offense punishable by civil penalty. The intent of the law is to discourage citizens from claiming a dog is a service animal in order to bring it into a place where dogs would otherwise be prohibited.

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However, House Bill 322 and Senate Bill 673 would amend the state’s definition of “service dog” to include “emotional support animals.”

State law currently defines a service dog as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, intellectual, or other mental disability.” It also explicitly excludes “companion or comfort animals” from that definition. The proposed bills would extend the exceptions granted to owners of service dogs to owners of emotional support animals as well, allowing the animals — defined in the bills as “any animal that a licensed medical professional has determined provides therapeutic benefit for an individual with a disability, including anxiety or any other emotional disorder” — to accompany owners into places where animals would otherwise be banned.

The distinction between service dogs and emotional support animals was one of the loopholes the current law was intended to address. Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, who introduced last year’s bill regarding service animals, said people can pass off an untrained animal as an emotional support animal and generally go unchallenged, which leads to unruly animals in places where they can inconvenience or harm people.

“Yeah, this is terrible,” Ruderman said. “This is placing emotional support animals on the same level as service animals.”

While the bills would require emotional support animals to be confirmed by a licensed medical professional to provide a therapeutic benefit to people with disabilities or emotional disorders, Ruderman said that consideration might be a violation of federal law, which prohibits parties to require certification for service animals.

Although Ruderman believes the bills negate his 2018 bill, Jim Kennedy, executive director of Hawaii Fi-Do, an Oahu nonprofit that provides people with service dogs, sees the measures as more related to housing: People with emotional service animals would be granted the same right to an animal at home as owners of service dogs.

Kennedy said Hawaii Fi-Do’s chief concern is for the safety of service dogs, which HB 322 and SB 673 do not threaten. Laws that would place undue scrutiny on service dogs in public places — such as Senate Bill 1152, which would allow restaurant owners to permit dogs into restaurants — are more concerning.

Kennedy said SB 1152 would allow dogs to be brought into restaurants so long as the restaurant permits it and makes certain accommodations and so long as the animal behaves well.

“Who can say no to a well-behaved dog?” Kennedy said. “Except how do you know they’re well-behaved?”

The bill also includes a provision whereby anyone who attempts to circumvent the law by misrepresenting a service dog shall incur penalties. While Ruderman said he would vote against the bills if it comes to it, he suspects the bills are as good as dead. No committees have scheduled hearings for any of the three bills, despite a deadline requiring that they be scheduled by today.

One other bill involving service animals has received Ruderman’s tentative support, however. Senate Bill 334 would codify the term “assistance animal,” which would apply to any animal that assists the owner, whether by helping the owner handle their disability or providing emotional support.

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Although Ruderman voted in favor of the bill with reservations at a January hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health, he worried that SB 334 will run afoul of the same federal law that prohibits requiring certification for service animals.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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