State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick brought her experience volunteering with her pet dog Dobie to the table to make recommendations on how to curb the use of “fake service animals.”

“That’s why I am on the committee,” said the senator, who represents part of Sandy Springs. “I am an animal person.”

The Senate study committee was addressing concerns about people passing off their regular pets as trained service or emotional support animals to gain access to public spaces that typically ban them, particularly restaurants and airlines, Kirkpatrick said. The issue often happens with pet dogs, sometimes causing safety issues or disruption, she said. People can buy certifications and vests for their pet online with little regulation, Kirkpatrick said, which are sometimes used to circumvent apartment pet bans or fees.

“Everyone from airlines to grocery stores to apartment owners have concerns,” Kirkpatrick said.

The confusion and debate revolves around at least three categories of animals:

  • Service animals: trained to perform specific tasks to assist someone with a disability.
  • Emotional support animals: provide general comfort to people with psychological conditions.
  • Therapy animals: provide comfort to people other than the handler in places like hospitals and assisted living facilities.

The committee was created to research possibly creating a uniform certification process or criminalizing the use of a fake service animal, according to the group’s final report, which was issued in January. The report called for more awareness about the difference between “service animals” and “emotional support animals.”

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick sits with her dog Dobie while volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Sandy Springs. (Special)

“The thing that was startling to me is the lack of understanding of different animals and regulations,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out how to clear that up.”

Recommendations include drafting legislation that calls for public service announcements and guidance for restaurants, grocery stores and apartments on the difference between the types of animals “as well as the fraudulent misrepresentation of such terms and meanings,” the report said.

A service animal is trained to perform specific tasks to help someone with a disability, such as a guide for someone who is blind, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act website. Dogs are the only animal whose use is fully protected under the ADA, although miniature horses are allowed under different regulations. The ADA allows dogs to accompany their handlers anywhere they go, unless the dog is out of control or breaks safety rules, such as going in a public pool.

Emotional support animals provide comfort, typically to people with such psychological conditions as anxiety or depression. The animals cannot accompany their handler to every public space, but their use is protected under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act, according to the committee documents. Airlines and landlords can ask for documents from a mental health professional that verify the need for the animal, a committee document said.

Kirkpatrick volunteered with her pet dog as a therapy animal, which only has basic obedience training and can visit facilities that provide permission to visit to comfort people, such as patients in a hospital or residents of an assisted-living facility, she said. Therapy dogs were discussed in some of the committee’s sessions, but are not usually used to pass off as a fake service dog and are not mentioned in the final report.

Ideas included requiring in-state physician certification and monetary fines, but the committee backed away from this, saying more research is needed to ensure the state laws would not violate the ADA.

Similar laws in other states have become a “strong point of contention between lawyers and advocates, especially in the housing industry,” the report said.

Dawn Alford, the public policy director at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, warned in a committee meeting there could be “unintended consequences that could result from any attempts to criminalize the misrepresentation of ‘fake’ service animals” that could harm people with disabilities, according to the report.

The committee heard testimony from groups like Delta and the Georgia Restaurant Association who did not recommend state level legislative changes but encouraged more education and awareness, the report said.

The committee was not looking into more regulations on pet ownership or allowing pets into public spaces, such as pet-friendly parks or restaurants.
Kirkpatrick’s dog is in a separate category from a service or emotional support dog. Her dog, a golden doodle, served as a “therapy dog,” which has been screened for temperament, has passed basic obedience training and provides comfort to people other than its handler. Dobie typically visited the Ronald McDonald House that serves Sandy Springs’ Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. The visits were coordinated and overseen by an Atlanta group called Happy Tails, which also uses pet cats and rabbits and therapy animals, according to its website.

“It was great for him and great for families who were far away from home for months with their kids who are sick,” she said.

She volunteered for five years and became a group leader for volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House, which is run by a nonprofit and provides housing for families during their child’s hospital stay.

Dobie has gotten too old to continue the visits, but Kirkpatrick said she hopes to get another dog and continue volunteering.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “It’s a win-win-win.”

But therapy dogs are not permitted anywhere their owner can go, which service dogs can, Kirkpatrick said.

“A therapy dog is a pet that has basic obedience training,” she said. “No self-respecting therapy dog owner would try to pass their dog off as one that can go in a restaurant.”

She said more education is needed to ensure everyone is aware of those differences in what the law allows.

“There are possibly people gaming the system, but I think it’s more confusion,” she said.

The committee’s report also calls for doing more research on the need to clarify the difference between the types of animals in state law.

She expects other dog-related bills to come up this session, including one that allows people to attempt to save animals from hot cars, which was recommended by the committee, and a return of a bill to ban pet store sales of animals from breeders statewide. Sandy Springs and Atlanta already have a pet sale ban on the books.

Opposition by major stores that sell pets is expected to try to “thwart local control,” Kirkpatrick said.