CJ Betancourt and her service dog rarely used to meet other dogs in public.
Now, Betancourt and Freddy can hardly make it down the aisle of a grocery store without seeing badly-behaved Chihuahuas straining at leashes like they’re trying to run a pint-sized Iditarod. Betancourt, a retired physician and the executive director of the Foundation for Service Dog Support, told lawmakers and members of the disability community that the prevalence of fake service dogs is hurting people who rely on real service animals.
“We have a service dog industry that lacks regulation, and because of that we lack credibility,” Betancourt said.
The Foundation for Service Dog Support would like to see new legislation to reduce the number of fake service dogs milling about public places. But the effort will likely face opposition from disability advocates who fear new regulations could weaken protections for people with disabilities.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act allows service dogs — and, in some cases, miniature horses — into businesses that otherwise ban animals.
Business owners are allowed to ask whether the animal is a service dog and what it’s been trained to do — for instance, serving as a guide dog for a blind person or alerting to seizures. They legally can’t ask for proof that the dog is a service animal or any questions about someone’s disability.
While many service dogs wear special harnesses, they’re not required to and a business owner can’t bar dogs for not having tags or harnesses that mark them as service animals. The law makes it possible for people with pets to pass them off as service dogs, and those fake dogs in turn make businesses suspicious of real service dogs, Betancourt said.
“The businesses really don’t know what to think,” she said. “They don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”
Betancourt’s foundation has been gathering data on problems businesses and people with service dogs face. People with service dogs most often run into difficulty in retail shops and restaurants, where they might be asked to leave or not let in because of their dog.
The most concerning thing the foundation found was an increase in service animal teams having to leave businesses because of encounters with untrained, aggressive, non-service dogs, she said.
A 2018 law sponsored by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, made it illegal to pass off pets as service animals, at the risk of a $250 fine.
The Foundation for Service Dog Support’s headquarters is in the hollowed-out husk of Phoenix’s Metrocenter Mall, directly across from a pet store. As dogs yapped and barked and cried across the hall, the service dogs in the foundation’s headquarters laid calmly by their owners throughout the meeting and padded along silently next to them when it ended.
But while trained service dogs may act differently than pets, it’s tough to prove that animals being presented as service dogs are fake.
The Foundation for Service Dog Support wants the Legislature pass new regulations on service dogs, including requiring that service dog trainers be licensed.
“If you want to paint people’s fingernails for a living, you need a cosmetology license,” Betancourt said. “Every one of you right now can go home, file papers with the corporation commission to start your own service dog training program and you can hang a shingle (without needing a license).”
The foundation would also like to see state-level legislation requiring education on service dogs for every business and defining service animal teams as one dog or miniature horse and one person.
Betancourt also suggested developing a state database of service animal teams. And to prevent food contamination, she said service dogs should be required to have all four paws on the floor while going through cafeteria lines.
But freshman Rep. Jennifer Longdon, a Phoenix Democrat recognized by her colleagues as the Legislature’s leader on disability issues, said these proposals could have unintended consequences.
For instance, a person with a balance issue, a seizure disorder and hearing loss may require a large service dog that helps with balance and another dog that alerts to seizures.
And while Longdon couldn’t think of a reason why a service dog might need to be off the floor in a food service area, she said it’s important to avoid any kind of absolutism in legislation dealing with disabilities.
“I’m not going to write a bill and I’m not going to support a bill that says we must do anything,” she said.
Asim Dietrich, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law, said requiring service dog trainers to be licensed could confuse people who want to self-train their animals. And he warned against creating any kind of database.
“Creating a database of service animals and handlers creates an issues of discrimination,” he said. “It’s basically a list of people with disabilities residing in the state. It opens the state up to litigation if they’re going beyond what the ADA requires.”
By protecting the rights of service dog users, the state could put the health of other people with disabilities at risk, said Phoenix father Richard Edwards, a Longdon constituent.
Edwards’ 18-year-old son has severe allergies to dogs and cats and uses a feeding tube 24-7. He wanted to attend the meeting, but couldn’t go in the room because several dogs were there.
Edwards said his son is unable to do simple things like go into grocery stores because of his allergies and the prevalence of fake service animals. If only real service animals were in public places, his son and other people with allergies would have an easier time, he said.
“There’s millions of people that have allergies, and their systems are being compromised by all of this,” Edwards said. “It’s out of control, and people don’t care.”