It didn’t take long for the scene to sour inside the Anoka County government center after a dog and its owner joined a crowded queue of voters.
Canine diarrhea soon struck, leaving behind an irksome cleanup and the discovery that the dog had no service training allowing it to be in the building in the first place.
The hard truth, as county Administrator Jerry Soma puts it: “It was just a pet.”
The messy mishap from 2016 spurred county officials to act. Anoka County now restricts animal lovers from toting ordinary pets into county facilities. From statehouses to corner stores, government officials and business owners across the country are trying to crack down on the number of people who misrepresent pets as service animals and weighing penalties for those flouting rules that restrict which animals may go where.
More animals than ever are being brought into restaurants, stores, hotels, airports and shared spaces. Some have been trained to do tasks for people with disabilities and are granted public access under state and federal law. But others are ordinary pets that owners are passing off as service animals so they can take them to places they don’t belong.
There is no official national registry for legitimate service animals. With service vests available for anyone to purchase online, abuses can abound.
“I know it’s increasingly been on people’s minds that something has to be done because it’s just rampant,” said Margot Imdieke Cross of the Minnesota Council on Disability. “Maybe if there was a penalty for fake service animals, people would realize this is a big issue.”
The topic, animal law experts say, comes larded with plenty of confusion over what does and does not qualify as a service animal.
Laws about housing, flying and public access can get jumbled. Disability advocates say to sort them out, it’s crucial to understand how a service animal and emotional support animal differ. Much of the distinction boils down to training.
Getting the terminology right matters, said Rebecca Wisch, associate editor of the Animal Legal & Historical Center, a digital project of the Michigan State University College of Law.
State and federal laws define service animals as dogs — and, in limited instances, miniature horses — that have been trained to do tasks directly related to a person’s disability. That work may include assisting people who are blind or deaf, pulling a wheelchair, reminding an individual to take medication or protecting a person having a seizure.
An emotional support animal, on the other hand, has no specific training but can provide comfort or therapeutic benefits for individuals with anxiety, depression or other mental or psychiatric disabilities. When it comes to housing, both types of animals are lumped together under the broad category of “assistance animals” for persons with disabilities and protected under federal law, Wisch said.
But in the public sphere, it’s a markedly different story.
Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, service animals can go wherever their owners go, from the library to public transit to the corner cafe. Not so with an emotional support animal, except when it comes to flying, which is guided by a different law.
And when people say “companion animal?”
“In a legal sense, a companion animal means pet,” Wisch said.
A service animal is a “defined right” for an individual with a disability, while an emotional support animal is a type of accommodation, said Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota commissioner of human rights.
Among those who rely on or train service dogs, there is growing apprehension about encountering untrained animals in public.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a long time, and it is getting worse,” said Lolly Lijewski, who has been a guide-dog handler for 34 years.
Service dogs are not pets, advocates point out. Rigorous training often makes them unnoticeable in public and unfazed by other animals. But trauma from a single dog attack can change that.
“It just takes one encounter that could render the service dog unusable,” said Ken Rodgers, who is blind and uses a guide dog. “We live with that fear all the time.”
Equally worrying is what some perceive as pushback to real service dogs because of other animals’ behavior.
“It gives all service dog organizations a bad name,” said Mike Hogan, who trains service dogs with the Minnesota nonprofit Helping Paws.
Hogan has seen the confusion that can arise about the state’s service animal law on a recent visit to the Edina branch of the Hennepin County library. Hogan said an employee approached and asked about Lincoln, the Labrador retriever he’s training. When Hogan disclosed that Lincoln, who was wearing a service vest, was a service dog in training, he said staff asked the pair to leave, saying “dogs in training are not allowed.”
Minnesota law says otherwise. Library officials have since followed up with Helping Paws to admit the error.
“There was just some general confusion,” said Ali Turner, system services division manager of Hennepin County Library. “It was a mistake on our part to ask them to leave.”
Across the metro area, Hennepin County joins Anoka, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties in having formal written policies that welcome service animals but prohibit ordinary pets.
“Ten to 15 years ago, this wasn’t a discussion I would have at all,” said Taud Hoopingarner, Dakota County operations management director. “But [service animals] are being used for a lot more things now, so there is more of an interest.”
Dakota County adopted its animal policy last year, joining a string of counties to create or retool policies in recent years. Some have included language to make a hard-line distinction between pets, service animals and animals that simply provide emotional support.
Anoka County’s policy, enacted last summer, permits only service animals or animals accompanying law enforcement inside county facilities. That means no more untrained dogs in the government center or “therapy birds” in the library. (Someone has asked.)
But it means business as usual for Tony Tengwall, who works in Anoka County Veterans Services and brings his psychiatric service dog, Fitz, to work. The English cocker spaniel is trained to help Tengwall, who deals with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Tengwall says education about service animals remains key to understanding their role: “Training the public is the most important thing.”