- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - For many years, Cheyenne’s Darleen Adkisson has dealt with significant visual impairment and some physical disabilities.

As a result, Adkisson couldn’t do simple things, such as safely take a walk, shop at most stores or visit the senior center independently.

That all changed when she received a “blessing” of a gift for Christmas in 2016 in the form of a companion and helper named Duke.

Duke is a 3-year-old black Lab that serves as a guide dog with some service dog skills. It’s safe to say he’s been a game-changer in Adkisson’s life.

“Since I lost my vision because of an aneurism, I could only go to one store by myself, and that’s because I had it mapped,” she told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (https://bit.ly/2qrqRGE). “Now I can go to other stores and shop by myself very comfortably. I hadn’t been to the mall in years.”

When it comes to public facilities and private businesses, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that people with service animals be admitted. This is allowed based on the assumption that the animal and its handler meet the laws’ standards. But some people in Wyoming have misrepresented pets as service animals, bringing them into places they are not allowed.

This can cause serious problems for those, like Adkisson, who truly need service animals to lead full lives, said Michelle Woerner, CEO and certified training instructor for K9s 4 Mobility, a Cheyenne-based nonprofit. Certain incidents have involved a non-service dog under the guise of being one startling a service dog that’s on duty, Woerner said.

“There are service dogs that balance, so people use them instead of a walker,” she said. “If another dog jumps on that (service) dog, it no longer provides the balance, and the person falls.”

Such incidents can result in costly and time-consuming retraining, she said.

“I think most people don’t do it meaning harm - they’re not malicious - but they need to stop and think about what could happen,” she said. “Your dog could misbehave and ruin a trained service dog, taking away (a person like Adkisson’s) independence. If you take away that dog, she never gets to walk by herself again. That’s just because you wanted to take your pet in the store, and it could ruin her life.”

On July 1, Wyoming will become the 16th state in the nation to enact laws relating to misrepresenting service animals. House Bill 114 makes doing so a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine up to $750.

“This bill was made in an effort to try to protect those that truly do need the protection, and try to detour those who don’t,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, the bill’s lead sponsor.

In addition to making it a misdemeanor to misrepresent a service dog, the bill also establishes the following:

- It clarifies that a service animal, as defined by the ADA, must be allowed in public facilities and private businesses.

- It prohibits discrimination in leasing or renting residential property because a person has an assistance animal. The bill does make the owner of an assistance animal liable for damages to a rental or leased property cause by the animal.

- If a person allows an animal into a public or private facility in good faith that the dog is a service animal, they are not liable for a resulting injury, such as a dog bite.

- The bill also criminalizes injuring or killing a service or assistance animal. Anyone found responsible for doing so could face up to six months imprisonment, a $750 fine, and responsibility for paying to replace or retrain an assistance or service animal.

The language of the bill refers to service animals and assistance animals. Between the two, there are finely worded, but important distinctions for the purposes of HB 114.

According to the ADA, a service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. This can include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disabilities. Qualifying miniature horses can also be trained as service animals, but protections for handlers differ in many respects.

“Assistance animal” is defined in the Fair Housing Act as an animal that works, provides assistance or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.

The ADA does not cover assistance animals for emotional support. Therefore, the bill does not allow for those animals to be brought into a public facility or private business under the premise of being a service animal. Assistance animals are, however, covered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This means there are protections for those seeking housing that have assistance animals for emotional support, and HB 114 clarifies that.

Laws pertaining to service animals can be confusing, Brown said. If a person responsible for a private business or public arena is unsure whether a dog is a true service animal protected by law, he said they can lean on two questions: Ask whether the dog is a service animal under the ADA; and if so, ask what specific tasks the dog performs.

The ADA requires a true service animal to perform specific tasks, which do not include emotional support. If someone can’t answer the second question, Brown said it’s a good indication it is not a true service dog.

But even with those questions in tow, Brown said it’s not always easy to know.

“It’s really hard to differentiate, even if you have someone that knows those two questions really well,” Brown said. “A non-service dog can still be masked as a service dog.”

Woerner said another good way to determine whether it’s a service animal or not is the dog’s behavior. If the dog is barking, lunging or otherwise seems unfocused, it is probably not a service animal.

“It should be very well-behaved,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but handlers correct those mistakes. A real handler knows to handle a dog.”

K9s 4 Mobility plans to put the 20th dog the nonprofit has trained and placed to work Friday. Woerner said it’s important work because service animals change the lives of the people they assist for the better. HB 114 helps support that cause, she said.

“To some people, it doesn’t sound like a big deal,” Woerner said. “But if someone has a disability and they drop a water bottle, they could go three to four hours without taking a drink, and they end up getting sick. When they need a door open, the dog can do that and close a door. We’re hoping service dogs will allow someone to stay independent.”


Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com

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