SC lawmakers joins other states in hope to stop the practice of 'fake' service animals

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) -  A growing number of pet owners are trying to get away with marking their furry friends as service animals designed to help those with disabilities.

Many lawmakers, including our own, are cracking down on violators and trying to stop this practice. On March 1, South Carolina legislators proposed a new bill that would make it a misdemeanor for those who misrepresent a service animal.

You see a dog enter a business with a vest that says "service dog." How do you, or the business, know if the dog is really a trained service dog? That's a question that has sparked concern over the years.

For some, it's really become an unfair way to get house pets into establishments with no questions asked. You may be surprised how easy it is for people to go out and purchase a service animal jacket and certificate with just a click of a button online.

President and trainer of Canine Service Angels Dogs, Rick Kaplan, said having a service dog takes a serious commitment. He said it takes countless hours to train a service dog and its handler – in general, about a year to train the dog and another 6 months to train the owner.

Kaplan said these people with phony service animals may not realize they are committing any sort of wrongdoing, and placing the general public in some serious danger because the dogs without proper training can react badly when exposed to situations they are not accustomed to.

He also said that the people who actually have serious disabilities and need the assistance of service dogs are being discriminated against now as a result of this.

"According to the ADA, the only 2 questions you can be asked is 'Is this your service animal?' and 'What task does this dog preform for you?' You don't have to make the dog do anything, you can just say what it is you want to say. The dog does not have to be forced to preform or prove or anything, which is very limiting, so how is anyone going to determine this is not a legit service animal?" said Kaplan.

Kaplan said there's really been an epidemic of people trying to find loopholes by purchasing a vest and some sort of fake documentation to pass off their pets, which are in general untrained dogs as "service animals." They do this to either go into a restaurant with their pet or to save money and avoid the animal airline fees when traveling.

He said now, he has started to train more disabled owners on what to do when confronted by someone who won't allow them to come into the establishment.

Kaplan said although this bill is heading in the right direction, there are still so many steps that need to be established in order to make this bill more effective, like enforcing some type of regulation.

"So how can you tell me that this is not a service dog. How is a police officer an expert on what a service dog should be, and they are not even properly trained? So, you can see this is an amorphous mass of everyone trying to do something except the right thing, and that is each state or county should have a service dog control dog authority. If you want to have a service dog in Horry County, you have to take your dog down and someone has to be responsible to test you and that dog, " said Kaplan.

The proposed bill in South Carolina, which would make it a misdemeanor if someone misrepresents a service animal, includes the following fines:

  1. For a first offense, an amount not less than $350 dollars and not more than $1,000 dollars;
  2. For a second offense, an amount not less than $600 dollars and not more than $1,000 dollars;
  3. For a third or subsequent offense, an amount not less than $1,000 dollars and not more than $5,000 dollars, in addition to not more than hours of community service.

Kaplan said although this bill might not make too much of a difference, he is for the effort of the initiative in this growing problem and just hopes for the best.

"Certainly, I know people - the legislator's heart is in the right place, they want to do something. This is a good stage because we have arrived at a place where it's clear we have a problem, and that it's becoming an epidemic. Everyone is on the bandwagon. If you go online and they are blatant about it, register your animal in 5 minutes," said Kaplan.

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