AUGUSTA — An effort to stop some Maine dog owners from misrepresenting their animals as “service” dogs by requiring more documentation was unanimously voted down by a key panel of state lawmakers Thursday.

The legislation, which would have required dog owners provide proof in the form of training documentation and a letter from a health care professional showing the individual’s need for a service animal, would conflict too much with existing federal law and may open the state to federal lawsuit, members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee said.

While the state could allow dog owners to get an official state dog tag that shows their animal is a real service dog, the state cannot make that a requirement, a legal analyst for the committee, Mike O’Brien, said.

“Under federal law, you cannot make that a requirement, it would seemingly be in direct conflict with what is required under the (federal Americans with Disabilities Act),” O’Brien said.

The bill, LD 547, authored by state Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, was aimed at preventing those who abuse the laws allowing for service animals from doing so and wasn’t targeted at disabled Mainers who truly depend on service animals to help them with either physical or intellectual disabilities.

State law requires dogs to be registered and licensed in Maine and it also allows municipalities to waive registration fees if the dog is a service animal.

State Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, and a co-sponsor of Campbell’s bill said he believed because Maine already had in place a system for licensing dogs and issuing tags to them it should pursue the option of allowing service dog owners to receive a special tag.

Tuell, himself legally blind but not a service dog user, said those faking it with their dogs so they can bring their pets someplace they wouldn’t normally be allowed, such as inside a restaurant or other business that does not allow dogs, were creating hostile environments for individuals that truly depend on service dogs.

Tuell said a few other states, including California, had programs to tag dogs as service animals but O’Brien said those programs were largely voluntary.

Campbell said the public hearing process on his bill, including testimony from real service dog users, brought to light how complicated the matter of regulating service animals could be. 

Under federal law there are only two basic questions anybody concerned about a service dog can ask its owner: Is the dog a service animal? What is it trained to do?

Other than that, a demand for proof or identification is not allowed.

Campbell said he didn’t blame the committee for not wanting to create a law that would be in conflict with federal law.

“And we understand completely that we don’t want to violate somebody’s rights but there are those who are impersonating out there,” Campbell said. He said his bill was meant to help the legitimate use of service dogs. “Because the impersonation of a service dog, for whatever reason, is far more of a problem than the service animals.”

The committee voted 10-1 to approve a measure that creates a citizen and lawmaker task force to study the problem and come up with suggested solutions that would be in compliance with the federal law and enforceable in Maine.

That panel would include residents who use service dogs for visible and “unseen” disabilities, as well as an expert who trains service dogs and a representative from the Maine Human Rights Commission that is an expert on the state’s Human Rights Act and the federal ADA.

That measure, LD 872, offered by state Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham, was a good start to solving a problem they have been trying to remedy for a long time, several service dog users at Thursday’s committee’s meeting said.

“We have to make sure that we mesh correctly with the federal statute,” Ward said later. “States have to get ahead of this and with the committee makeup that we’ve put together here today, I think we stand as good of a chance as we ever can toward making the laws current and making sure everyone’s interests are protected.”

Richmond resident Sean McDonough, an RN and service dog user who runs Pawsitive Dognosis, said he and others appreciated the intent of Campbell’s bill but also don’t want to increase barriers for legitimate service dog users.

McDonough said he has been illegally questioned about his dog, Bruno, a goldendoodle, because others with untrained and fake service dogs have created problems. He said he doesn’t hold those who misunderstood the federal law responsible. “It really isn’t their fault but it’s because of somebody else trying to break the law and bring in a pet,” McDonough said.

Tuell, who was also a co-sponsor on Ward’s bill, said he doesn’t typically support bills that generate studies but in this case it seemed warranted. 

“It may or not be a service dog but there’s a lot of people pushing the envelope,” Tuell said. “That’s where this study can help resolve some of those issues, I hope it can.”

The bill will next go to the House of Representatives for a vote before moving to the Senate.

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