A new law aims to crack down on fake service dogs — with big fines for their owners

Come Jan. 1, you could face a fine for trying to pass your fur baby off as a service dog

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Do you try to pass your furry loved one off as a service dog? You might face a fine under a new law set to go into effect Jan. 1.

Act 217 establishes a civil penalty for those who knowingly misrepresent a pet as a service animal.

And pet-loving violators can face fines of $100 to $500.

The problem of fake service dogs has been a growing one in Hawaii and nationally.

The internet has made it easy for pet owners to purchase misleading vests, patches, and ID tags.

In fact, at least 21 states have passed laws governing service animals in an attempt to keep unruly pets out of grocery stores, movie theaters and eateries.

[Read more: Here’s a look at some of the laws set to take effect in the new year]

John Seely says his service dog, a 3-year-old labradoodle named Eli, helps him with tasks that his disability interferes with.

“I have neuropathy and I can’t stand up on my own. So I’ll tell Eli to brace and he’ll just stand there, and I can push up on him,” Seely said.

Seely says the new law is needed because some pet owners are taking advantage of the rights and access service dogs receive.

“I would hope that this law causes more and more businesses to question people who bring dogs in there, whether they’re service dogs or not,” said Seely.

Service dogs are specifically trained — for years — to provide assistance directly related to a person’s disability.

“It’s hard for a dog to help someone when they’re in a baby carriage or a grocery cart,” said Jim Kennedy, executive director of Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dogs. “Behavior, cleanliness, close to the person — those are all pretty good signs that it is probably a service dog."

Kennedy says the new law will be difficult to enforce, since there’s no official registration or identification required for service animals.

But he says its a step in the right direction.

“We felt that the deterrent effect of having the law on the books was so important. Most people are law-abiding so it will have a meaningful impact on this abuse,” Kennedy said.

Under the American with Disabilities Act, an emotional support dog doesn’t qualify as a service animal.

In fact, the ADA says only dogs (and sometimes miniature horses) can be service animals.

The new Hawaii law defines service animals “as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Kennedy says he hopes the new law will educate the public about this difference.

He says federal and state laws allow emotional support animals to be on airplanes or in homes where they otherwise would not be allowed, but that’s it.

“We understand wanting to have your pet with you as much as possible, but we want (violators) to try to understand why it’s so wrong to do what they’re doing,” said Kennedy.

He says pet owners who abuse this privilege can put real service dog teams at risk.

“Dogs are dogs. If they are subjected to lunging, growling, barking, nipping from (untrained) dogs, there’s a high risk that there will be some interference with their focus in being able to perform the tasks they’ve been trained to do. And that can be dangerous,” Kennedy said.

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