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Cheyenne disabilities council forum discusses new law deterring fake service animals

Wyoming Tribune-Eagle - 9/28/2017

Sept. 28--CHEYENNE -- Elf the service dog is now retired, but he used to help a woman with cerebral palsy.

Elf is docile and well-trained. But over the last 10 years, he's been attacked twice by other dogs while he was working -- part of a growing problem as more people attempt to pass off pets as service animals in retail shops and other places, said Michelle Woerner, CEO of K9s 4 Mobility.

"I've had to retrain several dogs over the last 20 years that basically have PTSD because they've been attacked," she said. "When a dog goes into a store and then they're attacked, the next time they go into a store, they're scared."

On Wednesday night, the Mayor's Council for People with Disabilities hosted a forum to discuss a new Wyoming law that establishes a misdemeanor $750 fine for people who attempt to pass off a pet as a service animal.

Woerner and other speakers from the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association and Rocky Mountain ADA discussed the applications and limitations of the new legislation to more than a dozen community members.

Maggie Sims from the Rocky Mountain ADA Center explained that the federal American with Disabilities Act requires admission to both public places and private businesses for people with service animals.

The ADA defines a service animal as any dog -- or, in some cases, miniature horse -- that is trained to work or perform tasks to assist someone with a disability.

But the federal Fair Housing Act is broader. It includes any animal that is trained to help someone with a disability, but also animals that provide emotional support or alleviate symptoms or effects of a person's disability.

In public buildings and private businesses, such as grocery or clothing stores, the ADA definition applies. There is no requirement that support animals be admitted.

If store managers are wondering whether an animal is a service dog, they can ask whether the person needs the dog for a disability and what task the dog is trained to perform, Sims said.

Retailers can also ask dogs that are misbehaving by attacking other dogs, biting a person or barking incessantly to leave.

But beyond that, there's little store managers can do.

Claudia Horsburgh said the law doesn't go far enough to deter people from bringing pets into retailers.

The Cheyenne resident trains service dogs and said she has found it difficult to do meaningful training with her dog while other, untrained animals are on the loose.

"I don't see any protections for the service dogs in training," she said. "I think perhaps the law needs to be more closed."

She suggested that people be required to show some registration or certification for service animals or animals in training.

But Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association director Chris Brown said any tougher regulations would need to happen at the federal level.

"It goes as far as we can go at the state level," he said. "There are no additional licensing or badges or identification that can happen at the state level ... (because) the ADA doesn't require it."

Woerner with K9s 4 Mobility said that regular people need to get more involved.

If you see a dog in a shopping cart, disobeying its owner or running off a leash, it's a good indication that it's not a service dog, she said.

She encouraged people to speak up and demand that store owners do something to enforce the rules.

"It's OK to demand excellence," Woerner said. "It's OK to say, 'Your dog is not behaving' -- out."

"But (retailers are) not going to choose to get rid of those people unless there are people coming to complain."

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(c)2017 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

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