HILO — Claiming an ordinary dog to be a service animal will soon be illegal in Hawaii.
Thanks to a law passed in July, the new year will add “misrepresentation of a service animal” to the state’s list of offenses punishable by a civil penalty.
If an offender is found guilty of presenting a nonservice animal as a service animal, they will be subjected to a fine of between $100 and $250 for their first offense and at least $500 for each subsequent violation.
However, state Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, who introduced the bill, said the law will be very difficult to enforce and will instead largely serve as a deterrent.
“It’s like a littering law,” Ruderman said. “I don’t know if we’ve charged anyone with littering all year. It doesn’t get used a lot, but it still changes people’s perceptions.”
The law was written to prevent people circumventing “no animals” policies in public places such as supermarkets by claiming a pet as a service animal, usually a dog trained to assist a person in managing a disability. This behavior has led to unruly animals causing problems in public places, while unfairly stigmatizing users of genuine service animals.
Jim Kennedy, executive director of Hawaii Fi-Do, an Oahu nonprofit that provides people with service dogs, said he hopes the law will serve to remind animal owners that even a seemingly harmless act such as bringing a dog to a public place under the guise of being a service animal has harmful consequences.
Kennedy named four specific consequences of the offense. The first two consequences are similar, he said: that businesses will not know whether to trust any handler of a purported service dog, and that owners of legitimate service dogs will be placed under unfair scrutiny.
“They don’t need even more stress,” Kennedy said.
The other two issues concern the behavior of the dogs themselves. While service dogs are trained to focus on their tasks and ignore other animals while doing so, Kennedy said unruly animals might cause a dog to lose focus and interfere with its work.
Finally, Kennedy said, in rare occasions, an unruly dog might behave aggressively toward a service dog and even attack it. In some cases, the trauma of an attack might force the dog to “retire” from service.
“I’m not naive. People will try to fake it anyway,” Kennedy said, adding that there is nothing preventing any dog owner from purchasing a vest for their dog proclaiming it to be a service animal. “But if people realize that it’s wrong, then I think some people might decide not to do it.”
Kennedy also said because of the legal leeway provided to “emotional support animals” — animals that help owners cope with mental illness, which are legally allowed on airplanes and in housing that otherwise prohibits animals — many owners might be led to think erroneously that their emotional support animal is a service animal. The two are distinct concepts, Kennedy said.
Ruderman said the law likely will only be enforced if the offending behavior raises complaints from other people, such as if the animal attacks or threatens others. However, the law might also be enforced if the offender is charged with other offenses. “Say there’s someone who refuses to leave,” Ruderman said. “That way, the person could be charged with trespassing, and while they’re at it, they could be charged for misrepresenting a service animal.”
Ruderman acknowledged that police departments do not have the resources to enforce action against such a minor penalty, but said it is sufficient that the law exists and people are aware of it.
Establishments — such as grocery chain Island Naturals, which is owned by Ruderman — likely will post notices on their premises informing people about the penalties of misrepresenting an animal, which Ruderman said will hopefully make some people think twice before bringing a dog to the store.