House Bill NO. 0114 was passed by the Wyoming State Legislature and put into effect on July 1 in order to help protect service/assistance animals and prosecute those who misrepresent their pets as such.
Michelle Woerner, CEO of K9s 4 Mobility, assisted in writing the bill and is personally unaware of anyone being charged for imitating a service animal since it went into effect, but is hopeful that it will steer people the other direction.
“I am hoping that there are a few people out there that read it, have heard about it and have said, ‘I’m not going to try and get away with it,’” Woerner said. “But, as I told both the representatives and the Senate, I still speed and there is a law against it.”
Woerner explained a situation where if the owner of a business suspects someone is impersonating their animal as a service animal, or the animal is misbehaving, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the owner has the right to ask that person to leave.
If the person with the animal causes a commotion, the owner can call law enforcement in which they will either write the person a ticket for misrepresenting a service animal, or label it a civil matter in which the case will go to court, according to Woerner.
“That’s what I am trying to teach businesses is don’t let people bully you and saying, ‘I’m going to sue you,’” Woerner said. “Let them. If it’s a fake service dog they’re going to get caught and they’re probably not going to sue you because they know they’re wrong.”
Woerner has been training service animals for 20 years. Woerner moved to Cheyenne five years ago and started up K9’s 4 Mobility, a non-profit that takes in rescue and shelter animal and turns them into assistance dogs that are worth between $20,000-25,000 in the service animal industry.
“I think we’re sitting right at 55-60 percent of our dogs are rescues and shelter dogs and the others are purebreds we’ve got from our breeder,” Woerner said.
To train a service animal, Woerner said it takes approximately nine months depending on the circumstance.
“This year I placed four dogs and last year I placed six,” Woerner said. “So it depends on what dogs are in and how fast they’re ready. Sometimes it’s the dog and sometime it’s the person.”
When a service dog begins training, Woerner teaches dogs the basics. These include learning how to behave nicely, walk on a leash, make good eye contact and voluntarily respond to Woerner’s commands. Woerner must also be conscious of the specific needs of the person receiving the service animal.
“Every dog is trained specifically for that person: personality skills, environment,” Woerner said. “We want the dog to be happy, we want the person to be happy, and we want them to have similar personalities.”
On the other hand, when a service animal gets attacked, Woerner has to retrain them, and depending on the severity or number of the attacks the animal may have to be retired.
Dr. Sarah Crystal, a veterinarian at Cheyenne Pet Clinic, deals will cases pertaining to working/service dogs and has witnessed changes after an attack.
“I definitely have seen animals that were friendly, outgoing and approach other animals before an attack and then after the attack they shake when other animals approach them,” Crystal said. “They’re more submissive.”
Woerner had a case where a dog she had trained got attacked three times and each time Woerner had to retrain the dog until after the third attack when the damage done was too detrimental.
“We got him over it the first two times and now the minute she (dog owner) starts to put on his harness he starts shaking,” Woerner said.
This service animal’s job was to balance its owner, which helped her ability to walk, but since the dog can no longer perform service tasks the owner has to go without her service animal.
“When someone has to not work one they’ve lost their independence and can’t just go buy a new one,” Woerner said.
To receive a service dog, Woerner said that a person must be put on a waiting list. Once they have been matched with a dog that has the right personality and qualities to help that person with their disability, they have to wait till the dog is trained.
“Fifteen years ago it was no big deal because you’re like ‘there’s nothing in here that going to hurt you’,” Woerner said. “But today I can’t tell you that if you go down to Walmart there’s not going to be another dog in there that’s going to attack your dog.”
Crystal said that dog attacks are common and can be potentially fatal.
“We’ve seen severe enough trauma that sometimes the dog, unfortunately, dies because the bite wounds are so severe,” Crystal said. “In terms of personality, sometimes dogs have lasting changes because they become more fearful of other animals. Sometimes it’s toward a particular breed that they were attacked by, and sometimes it’s all around fearful of other dogs.”
Dr. Aubrey Fine, a psychologist at California State Polytechnic University, said in a JAVMA News article that people with disabilities are being questioned for having a service animal with them because animal owners can receive a certificate online that allows them to take their pets to places they would normally not be allowed. Fine calls this fraud.
“When you see people walking around with jackets on their animals, it isn’t clear who is who,” Fine said.