Courtney Blackmore doesn’t take her dog with her when she’s out in public for comfort or attention. She does so because it’s a medical need.
Blackmore, 21, of Sonora, suffers from a high heart rate that can cause her to easily get dizzy and faint unexpectedly when she goes to pick something up.
To help Blackmore get through her daily life, she has a service dog named Shadow who’s trained to pick things up for her and detect whenever she’s on the verge of a fainting episode.
“If I could leave him at home, I’d be like a normal normal person,” Blackmore said. “You stand out like a sore thumb with a service dog.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 allows service dogs like Shadow to accompany their handlers in any public setting, including businesses like grocery stores and restaurants that generally don’t allow animals.
However, a growing trend of people claiming the same rights for dogs or other animals that only provide comfort or emotional support has created problems for people like Blackmore.
“People have a hard time figuring out that dogs are not allowed in food stores, or certain stores in general, and that makes it harder for us,” Blackmore said.
A quick online search returns many listings for websites that offer certifications for “emotional support animals.”
None of those certifications are recognized as legitimate under state and federal law.
“The online registrations are all fake,” Blackmore said. “They are all scams, but I’ve seen multiple people in (Tuolumne County) with those IDs.”
The law protects the right for animals to accompany their handlers only if that animal is trained to perform a specific task for a person with a disability, such as guiding people who are blind, picking up items, or medical alert.
Providing comfort and emotional support, on the other hand, are not considered tasks under federal law.
Blackmore said the biggest problems she faces are other dogs that aren’t properly trained attacking Shadow, businesses that question her need for a service dog or refuse entry, and people who touch or pet her dog without her permission.
“I literally had a dog attack my dog and the person said that mine was in the wrong,” she said. “I’ve been told I don’t need a dog because I don’t look disabled.”
People who intentionally interfere with the use of a service dog by obstruction or harassment can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.
Training a legitimate service dog is not as easy as simply filling out a form over the Internet.
Blackmore has had Shadow for about four years and spent the past three training him through a special program at Silver Paw Ranch, a nonprofit organization based in San Andreas that helps veterans and people with disabilities learn how to train service dogs.
Shadow has also been through obedience training, task training and public-access training to see how he deals with noises and distractions.
Blackmore’s husband, Chad Andrews, 21, said he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and is in the process of training another German shepherd to lead him away from bad situations when he’s having an anger episode.
Ellen Middlebrook, 18, of Sonora, is training an Anatolian shepherd as a medical alert dog because she suffers from hypoglycemia that can lead to fainting. She has experienced similar problems as Blackmore.
“I don’t know if they realize the dogs are like our lifeline,” she said of people who abuse the law.
The three take classes for training service dogs that are held at 5 p.m. on Fridays at the Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall in Tuolumne.
A program through Tuolumne County Animal Control provides free tags identifying legitimate service dogs with a number that the agency can use to verify if the dog is registered.
Animal Control Manager Michael Mazouch said the agency has issued 47 service-dog ID tags since the program began in the late 2000s
Mazouch said he’s turned many people away because their dogs are not properly trained.
The program is voluntary and not required under federal law, but it provides a way for the handler to show proof if they do encounter a problem.
“The tag means that Tuolumne County Animal Control has verified the training, it has a rabies vaccination and the dog is a legitimate service animal,” Mazouch said.
Though federal law prevents Mazouch from asking about a person’s disability, he can ask where the dog was trained, what task or tasks it was trained to do and have the handler sign an affidavit that makes them liable for a fine of up to $1,000 if the dog is caught without proper training.
Calaveras County Animal Services has a similar program.
A local agency doesn’t have the authority to enforce fake tags and service-dog vests, however.
“I don’t have any control over bogus tags, or if you see an animal in Walmart with a vest on but no documentation,” Mazouch said. “That’s a state enforcement matter.”
Mazouch said that medical alerts are common tasks that such animals perform for people with hypoglycemia and fainting. He also said virtually any type of dog can be trained to perform a task, but the breeds most susceptible to the training are Labradors and German shepherds.
Service dogs shouldn’t be aggressive or distracted from their task when in public, Mazouch added.
“The people who have done it correctly have spent a lot of money and time in training,” Mazouch said. “It’s not fair for other people to get something off the Internet to slap on their dog and walk around with it.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.