Texas House bill tightens leash on service animal fraud

by TYLER YORK//Online Editor

training-service-dogs

Texas may soon be cracking down on people attempting to take their pets where they don’t belong.

In April 2017, the Texas House of Representatives introduced House Bill 2992, which would set up legal recourse for people who misrepresent their animals as service animals.

According to the bill, it would be classified a misdemeanor “if the person fits an animal with a harness, collar, vest, sign, tag, or leash of the type commonly used by persons with disabilities” in order to receive special access or benefits normally reserved to service animal handlers.

This act, as of the current bill’s text, would be punishable with both a $300 fine and 30 hours of community service in a position that serves those with disabilities or visual impairments.

The bill is receiving mostly positive reactions, including that of Jeana Stearns, a Huntsville, Texas native and Emotional Support Animal (ESA) owner.

“I liked most of it, but still have some issues,” said Stearns regarding the bill.

Much of the reason Stearns supports the bill has to do with her own experience seeing handlers try to pass off their animals as service dogs, or SDs.

“I have seen at least two cases that the SDs [were] questionable,” said Stearns. “I have seen and talked with at least four other SD owners with their fully trained SDs. They have seen more. Since I live about one hour north of Houston and with the bullet train moving in, I’m sure that I’ll see more issues coming into town.”

Stearns gives some examples of red flags when encountering a person with a suspect service dog.

“This parent was claiming her 8 [month] old puppy that she had to take everywhere and had to carry—I never saw the poor thing touch the ground—was her SD,” Stearns recalled. “She even had a play area for it at her work place. With toys, food and drink. Everyone was welcomed to visit and play with the pup.

“She would carry it into the school building and around the halls,” Stearns added. “I never saw a vest (which is OK) but whenever anyone would ask why, she would say that it was her SD. Everyone was allowed to pet it.”

In many cases, petting a service dog can cause the dog to lose focus and miss involuntary signals from the handler that could potentially prevent a seizure or other dangerous medical condition.

“Fully trained SDs are not to react with anything but their handlers,” said Stearns.

But Stearns also said she wishes lawmakers would focus more on helping protect those with Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs.

“I think that the bill simply doesn’t help any legal ESA,” Stearns said.

“I agree that fakes cause lots of problems, but so do people that run the stores or housing,” said Stearns. “I know of people that finally get into housing and now have to fight to keep their (legal) ESA but end up paying a pet deposit and pet rent just so they can keep the housing. The housing lists are around two years long where I live.”

Ultimately, Stearns says Emotional Support Animals are often looked down upon, compared to Service Animals, and she thinks they both deserve higher legal status.

“I like to think of ESA as equals to EMTs,” Stearns said. “Although, they don’t do as much as doctors (SDs), they do assist in the saving of others.”

“Those that need ESAs don’t have a choice,” Stearns added. “Just like those with SDs don’t have a choice. ESAs and SDs assist with saving lives and should be treated with respect.

Texas House Bill 2992 is currently pending in committee, and is set to go into effect September 2017, if passed.

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