BISMARCK — Jeremiah Erickson served two tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq. When he came back, he — like many veterans — suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he also has a friend to help him along. His service dog, a Labrador named Ida, is an invaluable part of his daily life. When they’re out in public together, she’s a “passive barrier” who greets strangers before they can get uncomfortably close. She knows how to bring Erickson out of a flashback, or even wake him from a nightmare.
“She used to be sweet when we were paired up together, but now she knows to keep our distances if I’m thrashing a little harder than normal,” Erickson said. “I don’t know how she does it, but she’ll try to roll my carcass out of bed.”
Erickson is among many Americans who depend on a service dog for day-to-day life. He works in client services at Service Dogs for America, in Jud, N.D., where there are 36 dogs in “inventory,” a leader with the training group says, ranging from 6 months to 2 years old.
It’s a vital industry for people who use the dogs. Jenny BrodKorb, the executive director of the group, compared service dogs to an elderly person’s walker — an essential part of how they make their way through the world. What makes a service dog a true and real service dog, she said, is the significant amount of training they have.
Impostors, she said, are relatively easy to spot. They’re the dogs in a restaurant that eat food off a table, nip at customers or cause a disturbance. The distraction they can cause for working service dogs, she said, is like taking that walker away from the person who uses it.
That’s where HB 1259, passed with overwhelming support this past session of the North Dakota Legislature, comes in.
The state House of Representatives passed the bill 85-4, following a 43-0 vote in the Senate. The action makes North Dakota one of more than 20 states in the nation to pass laws that make it illegal to falsely claim a pet is a service animal. It took effect Aug. 1.
BrodKorb said it was Service Dogs for America that worked worked with sponsor Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, to pass the bill, which makes misrepresenting a pet as a service animal — to enter a restaurant or bypass housing fees, for example — an infraction punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine.
And BrodKorb said those impostors are a serious, widespread problem.
But cutting misrepresentations down to zero isn’t really the point, BrodKorb said. It’s about weeding out the obvious frauds, which pose the greatest risk of distracting a genuine service animal that’s on the job.
“If you are in a restaurant, and someone’s service dog bites your ankle, that, I can assure you, is not a service dog … (and a) law enforcement officer is going to know in short order if that’s a trained service animal,” she said. “If you believe that the dog being presented as a service dog is not actually a service dog, call local law enforcement.”
But what about the frauds that don’t misbehave?
“Do we care about that particular situation?” BrodKorb asked. “No, because that animal is not going to attack those animals who are well-socialized.”
North Dakota’s new law only goes so far toward combating misrepresented animals, and doesn’t prescribe exactly how a restaurant owner, for example, is supposed to go about checking to see which animals are service animals and which aren’t. According to federal disability law, there are only so many questions a business is allowed to ask: Specifically, is that a service animal, and what service does it provide?
According to the federal government, disability law “gives a person with a disability the right to be accompanied by his or her service animal,” even into a bar or restaurant.
The ADA National Network, which specializes in guidance on federal disability law, says that violators of “public accommodations” rules leave themselves open to private lawsuits from victims of discrimination. The U.S. Department of Justice’s website states that it can file lawsuits or seek civil penalties in cases where there’s been discrimination, though the department can’t sue “unless negotiations to settle the dispute have failed.”
Parsing what is and isn’t a bona fide service or emotional support animal can be a headache for landlords. Paul Robinette is a property manager for Megha, LLC, which controls numerous properties in the Grand Forks area. Oftentimes, he says, he suspects prospective tenants to be misrepresenting their pets.
“Most of the time,” he said, “they’re trying to figure out how to get into the apartment cheaper.”
North Dakota’s new law is an addition to a complex body of federal and state laws that parse the difference between a slew of animals that help their owners, like emotional support animals and service animals. HB 1259 is specifically about service animals, which under federal disability law are highly trained dogs or miniature horses that tend to a very specific disability need. That’s akin to monitoring a diabetic’s glucose levels or helping with Erickson’s PTSD.
It contrasts with an emotional support animal, which isn’t trained like a service animal but can help an owner manage anxiety or similar ailments. It still enjoys special status under federal housing law, though, which requires that a tenant provide a landlord with “reliable disability-related information” vouching that the animal provides an emotional benefit. This is often a doctor or therapist’s note.
And those pets differ from therapy dogs, too, which are specially trained like a service dog. But unlike those highly regulated animals, said Lee Anderson, tester-observer with Alliance of Therapy Dogs and a highly active member with the Grand Forks Dog Training Club, their role isn’t to provide a specific medical benefit to an individual, but instead to visit public places like schools or elder care facilities and offer a calming presence. Unlike a service dog, they don’t have to be accommodated by a restaurateur, for example, under federal disability law.
But Anderson said she’s just as aware — and just as frustrated — by those impostor service dogs as anyone else.
“That is the gripe,” she said. “Even of us.”