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Rules for legitimate 'service animals' and how people abuse the system

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EUREKA, Calif. - In Humboldt County, it can be difficult to tell what rules apply when it comes to having a legitimate service animal.

Juliannah Harris is the assistive technology coordinator for Tri-County Independent Living. She is visually impaired and uses the assistance of her guide dog, Dawson. After some negative experiences while out with Dawson, she came up with the idea to send postcards to businesses in Humboldt County with information on the laws surrounding Service Animals.

"I've been in situations with my guide dog Dawson where there's another dog who is not under the owner's control, who's barking, or aggressive," Dawson said. "And it's meant that we've had to leave the establishment."

Businesses are only allowed to ask two questions when someone walks in with a guide dog, according to Andra Hale with the Humboldt County Animal Shelter.

According to Hale, those two questions are: "Is the animal required because of a disability?" and "What tasks has the animal been trained to perform?"

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog or miniature horse that performs a task for a person with a disability. Businesses are not allowed to ask a person with their service animal what their disability is, nor are they allowed to ask for a demonstration of the task the animal performs.

"It might not be time for the dog to perform that specific task," Harris said.

Owners of service animals do not have to pay a licensing fee for their animals. This is something Hales speculates people take advantage of.

"People take advantage of the law and pass of their animals as service animals when they're not," Hale said.

Harris believes this problem causes issues for owners of legitimate service animals.

"It doesn't give people a good image of what a service animal is and how it's expected to act," Harris said. "It sets a bad example for people with legitimate service animals."

But businesses are allowed to ask a person to remove their animal if the animal is misbehaving or is not house-broken.

"I tell businesses again and again that they have the right to tell them to leave if the dog is misbehaving," Harris said. "But I find that most times business owners are afraid of being sued."

So Harris sent out postcards letting businesses know their limitations and their rights.

"Businesses need to be more informed," she said. "It will make it better for the handlers, but also for the business themselves"

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