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Our view: Flouting of service dog rule must end

Jason Cook, a veteran who has a service dog, testified in favor of a North Dakota bill penalizing the fraudulent misrepresentation of service animals Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Marine and National Guard veteran Jason Cook this week told lawmakers his service dog helps him deal with the repercussions of post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury. Cook said the dog helps him feel comfortable in crowded places.

Unfortunately, for everyone like Cook — who is aided by a legitimate service dog — there are others who masquerade their pet as a service animal in hopes of getting it into public and private places, in housing or in flights that otherwise disallow pets.

Cook testified Wednesday in Bismarck before a legislative committee. The veteran believes House Bill 1259 will help limit false claims about service animals and thereby make him more comfortable to take his own animal into stressful places.

Service animals have undergone rigorous training and know how to stay focused, follow commands and perform important tasks. They are calm and well-behaved. Among the problems with illegitimate service animals is that they can be disruptive and, worse, can adversely react to true service animals.

This isn't a rare circumstance. More than 20 states already have worked to crack down on people who make false claims about service and support animals. Among them is Minnesota, which created a law last year making it illegal to misrepresent service and support animals, punishable by up to a $100 fine and a misdemeanor charge. Other states — such as Arizona — have even larger fines, upwards of $250.

Downtown businesses in Grand Forks have seen potentially illegitimate claims about service animals, including at the Herald.

The problem is fourfold.

First, there apparently is no uniform nationwide certification process.

Second, supposed verification — such as a vest for service dogs — is easy to obtain on the internet.

Third, federal law states businesses can only ask two questions about supposed service dogs: Is it a service animal, and what is it trained to do? They cannot demand documentation or seek specifics about disabilities.

Fourth, all of this combined means it's easy for a dishonest pet owner to mislead businesses or landlords about an animal's true role, often making for easy access into otherwise prohibited areas and housing.

The real victims are people like Cook, who told lawmakers he wants to see a crackdown on imposter service animals so he feels safer going out with his dog.

There were no opponents during the committee meeting in Bismarck, and that's a good start for HB 1259. However, questions are likely to arise, including this one: How can it be properly enforced if businesses and others only can ask vague questions about an animal?

That's an issue that can be overcome, however. After all, other states already have laid the groundwork.