New Pa. law aims to protect service dogs

Posted: August 08, 2012

HARRISBURG - With a pen in one hand and a puppy in the other, Gov. Corbett on Wednesday scribbled his signature on ceremonial copies of a new law aimed at shielding service dogs from attacks by other dogs.

"Service dogs provide a vital link between some of our most vulnerable citizens and the rest of the world," Corbett, a dog owner, told a room filled with service dogs and their trainers and owners. "By protecting these animals, we are protecting the people they serve. This bill leaves no uncertainty that a willful and malicious attack on a service dog is a crime and will be treated as such."

Corbett officially signed the bill in June, shortly after it passed the General Assembly, but a ceremonial event was organized at the Susquehanna Service Dogs training center so supporters of the legislation and their four-legged companions could attend.

When it takes effect Monday, the law will impose criminal penalties and a fine of up to $5,000 on the owner or co-owner of a dog that kills, maims, or disfigures a service dog without provocation.

The measure is similar to laws in three dozen other states, including New Jersey.

The bill's sponsor, State Rep. John Evans (R., Erie), praised the diligence of advocates who pushed and prodded for 15 years to get the law enacted.

Evans said much of the debate centered on whether dog owners should be held criminally liable for their dogs' conduct.

As Evans spoke about the long road to the bill's passage, some audience members grew misty-eyed, and Corbett bowed slightly and wiped away a tear.

Among those in attendance Wednesday was Passle Helminski, an Erie artist who relies on service dogs but whose current dog and two previous service dogs were attacked repeatedly by other dogs, including several times in her own backyard.

Helminski was nearly blinded 20 years ago by a stroke, and earlier sustained injuries in separate accidents that limited the use of her hands.

"Now we have the law on our side," said Helminski, her service dog, Kate, at her feet. "Now when something happens, we don't call the dog warden, we call the police."

Corbett said service dogs are more vulnerable to attack because they are trained not to fight back, and can cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace because of their extensive training.

Evans said the bill also required people found criminally liable in cases where a service dog is attacked and injured to pay for veterinary care and, if necessary, retraining - and if the service dog is killed, to also cover the cost of replacement.

Helminski said a national study found that a third of service dogs that are attacked are forced to retire as a result of physical injuries or emotional trauma.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584,, or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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