The Day

Distractin­g service dogs would be a crime under legislativ­e proposal

- By SUSAN HAIGH

Hartford — Service dogs may be tempting to pet, but a proposed Connecticu­t law would make it a crime to intentiona­lly interfere with their duties.

People who rely on guide and service dogs to help them cope with anything from blindness to post-traumatic stress to bipolar disorder have requested the legislatio­n. They say it’s not uncommon for members of the public to purposely distract the animals, even if the dog is wearing a vest identifyin­g it as a service animal.

“I wish I could say that people understand, or that they respect us when we ask them not to distract our dogs, but they don’t,” Christine Elkins, of Bristol, recently told members of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. She said a man once followed her to the parking lot of a store and banged on her car window after she asked him to please stop distractin­g her dog.

Elkins has balance and mobility problems. She said she could fall and end up living her life in a wheelchair if her dog is distracted.

Connecticu­t is one of the few states without some variation of a law on the books prohibitin­g the interferen­ce with or harassment of service animals, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan

State University. For example, in Georgia, anyone who knowingly and intentiona­lly harasses or attempts to harass an assistance dog and knows the animal is an assistance dog is guilty of a misdemeano­r, punishable by not less than 90 days in prison or a fine not to exceed $500, or both.

Under the bill that cleared the Connecticu­t Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, people who intentiona­lly interfere with an assistance animal could face a Class C misdemeano­r, punishable by up to three months in prison.

“It is surprising that it is not a crime in Connecticu­t to harass or otherwise interfere with a guide/assistance dog or the dog’s handler,” wrote the Connecticu­t Commission on Human Rights and Opportunit­ies, in testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee. “Connecticu­t is behind less progressiv­e states with regard to protecting the rights of guide/assistance dogs and their handlers.”

Some lawmakers have voiced concerns that someone who just wants to be friendly with a dog might face serious consequenc­es under this legislatio­n. That prompted the committee to amend the bill to make it clear it’s only targeting any person who “intentiona­lly interferes” with the service animal’s duties. The bill now awaits further action in the House of Representa­tives.

Current Connecticu­t law requires guide dogs to be on leashes, licensed and wearing harnesses or orange leashes and collars that ensure they’re recognized as service animals. There are also provisions that allow impaired people and their service dogs to use public transporta­tion and enter any place of public accommodat­ion — an issue the commission said it receives many complaints about from people with disabiliti­es who’ve been denied access.

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