BOSTON — Ellen Leigh was out with her service dog, Ricky, last month, when another dog wearing a working-dog vest tried to bite him, forcing the duo to quickly turn in the opposite direction.
Leigh, an Arlington resident who uses a motorized wheelchair, told lawmakers on Tuesday that this was one of many encounters she's had with pets whose owners misrepresent them as service dogs.
While legitimate service dogs like Ricky are bred for their work and trained to be non-aggressive, Leigh said, pets without special training can become stressed in hectic, public environments and become aggressive, creating a hazard for service dogs and the people who rely on their assistance.
"I would naturally want to intervene if a dog tried to attack Ricky," Leigh said at a Judiciary Committee hearing, as Ricky sat beside her in a red "service dog" vest. "And if I did, I would very likely get hurt."
A bill (H 3657) filed by Rep. Kimberly Ferguson would make it a civil infraction to knowingly misrepresent a dog as a service dog or service-dog-in-training "for the purpose of obtaining any rights or privileges afforded to a person with a disability requiring the assistance of a service dog."
Violators would be subject to a fine of up to $500, 30 hours of community service at an organization serving people with disabilities, or both, for a first offense. The penalty would increase for subsequent offenses.
"The bottom line is, this is a bill about fraud," said Ferguson, a Holden Republican.
Ferguson said 83 members of the 200-seat Legislature had signed on to her bill as co-sponsors.
Service dogs and other working animals are often permitted in establishments that don't allow pets, such as restaurants, shops and hotels.
Rep. Sarah Peake, a supporter of Ferguson's bill who testified on an unrelated matter at Tuesday's hearing, told the committee that she ran a bed-and-breakfast for 23 years and encountered a number of guests who would claim their dog was a service animal after being informed that the inn was pet-free.
A generation ago, service dogs mostly assisted people with physical disabilities, Sheila Goffe of the American Kennel Club said. Now, she said, that role has expanded to include aiding people with "invisible disabilities" like epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Service dogs are one of the few tools that can expand an owner's opportunity by giving them independence and confidence," Goffe said. "It broadens their world to experience a more normal life than otherwise possible. Sadly, increased success in the area of invisible disabilities, combined with a lack of penalties for abuse, has resulted in an epidemic of pets being misrepresented as service dogs by irresponsible dog owners seeking to benefit.
© 2020 State House News Service