Guide dog owners complain about untrained 'service animals'

LA CROSSE — Guide dog owners in western Wisconsin say they're frustrated that laws protecting service animals are being abused by people who claim their untrained dogs are legitimate service animals.

At least two guide dog owners in La Crosse have contacted police after untrained animals attacked their dogs, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

Liz Freyseth, 35, is legally blind and has had her service dog, Ellie, since 2016.

"It's like she's an extension of my body," Freyseth said. "When you have that extra set of eyes and that trust, your independence just soars."

But Freyseth said she had to call the police when an untrained dog attacked her animal and caused it to lose focus.

"The hardest part is when we run into fakes," Freyseth said. "We don't know where they are, and one attack can change our dog forever. I get scared."

Guide dogs can cost as much as $40,000 and require months of training.

A dog's behavior can indicate whether it's truly a service animal, Freyseth said. Dogs that growl, lunge, bark excessively or are energetically playful are likely untrained, she said.

"Bottom line is behavioral standards," said Steve Johnson, 54, who lost his vision at 22. Johnson said service dog owners will also use simple but firm commands, and won't coo or yell at their animals. "It's how they handle the dog."

Increased education and awareness about laws covering service animals will help prevent the laws from being exploited, Freyseth said.

A service animal is trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Businesses can inquire if a dog is a service animal, but dog owners don't have to provide proof of certification or training.