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DeeDe Baker and Millie

DeeDe Baker poses with Millie, ambassador dog for Dogtag Buddies.

When it comes to service animals in Montana, it truly is the Wild West. Our current law, 49-4-219(4) Montana Code Annotated allows any animal to be considered a service animal, leading to a plethora of animals being represented as service animals. The current law has no provisions or penalties for misrepresentation, meaning there is little local law enforcement can or will do to the handler of the untrained dog for disrupting a business or interfering with a service dog team.

Dog Tag Buddies, a local organization working to provide fully trained dogs to veterans with hidden injuries, is working to update 49-4-214, Montana Code Annotated, to conform to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), intending to ensure that the state’s definition of service animals aligns with the ADA.

Dog Tag Buddies prides itself in its training of both service dog teams and emotional support companions. But we also take pride in educating our veterans, and the general public, on the difference in accessibility between the two.

The proposed revision includes language that makes it a misdemeanor in the state of Montana to misrepresent a dog as a trained service dog, as well as a fine of up to $100 and community service to an organization that serves the disabled. While the proposed penalty is currently less than similar legislation and laws in surrounding states, it is a step in the right direction.

House Bill 439 will be heard on March 11 by the Judiciary Committee. The hope is that it will move out of committee to the House floor for a vote, and then on to the Senate, with the final goal of passing both to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk for a signing.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, has included language that is already in the ADA. He hopes it will create a more uniform way for businesses to feel comfortable utilizing their rights to ask individuals to remove dogs that are not under control, even if represented as a service dog.

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We need to educate the public about service dogs. There is so much misinformation out there, including “service dog registries” and which rights ESAs (emotional support animals) have versus service dogs. For our veterans who are already struggling in public settings, these untrained dogs create an entirely new set of issues.

As the use of service dogs for a broader spectrum of disabilities has increased, the need to educate the public becomes more important. We need to ensure the protection of the service dog teams, businesses and the public from untrained dogs that have a potential to cause serious injury, and potential liability issues.

We hope you will support HB439 by contacting your legislative representatives and asking them to pass this important update to our Montana law.

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DeeDe Baker, of Shepherd, is executive director of Dog Tag Buddies, dogtagbuddies.org.

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