A hearing at the State Capitol in Austin Monday will focus on a proposed bill that would specifically forbid the act of passing a pet off as a trained service animal.
House Bill 2992 would make it a misdemeanor to “fit an animal with a harness, collar, vest, sign, tag or leash of the type commonly used by persons with disabilities…so that the person can gain access, permission or benefits provided to persons with disabilities.”
Using a fake service animal would be a misdemeanor under HB 2992, punishable by a fine of not more than $300 and 30 hours of community service for a “governmental entity or nonprofit organization that primarily serves persons with visual impairments or other disabilities.”
Service dogs are defined as those that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, according to the American Kennel Club.
“The AKC strongly condemns characterizing dogs as service animals when they are not, or attempting to benefit from a dog’s service dog status when the individual using the dog is not a person with a disability,” the AKC states on its website in support of TX HB 2992.
There can be real financial incentives for employing a fake service dog – many airlines will allow a service animal to fly for free, and service animals can often live with tenants in apartments or stay in hotels that would otherwise restrict the presence of pets. But it is not a victimless crime.
Jessica Naert, of Denton, is supportive of the effort to punish those who would fake a service animal.
Naert has a rare eye disease – retinitis pigmentosa – that has left her legally blind. As a result, she uses the services of her trained guide dog, Makiko, to live and travel independently.
But Naert and Makiko have been denied access to businesses and restaurants that should have otherwise accommodated them.
“It is because people have had so many bad experiences from people faking service dogs that when a legitimate service dog handler, such as myself, when we walk in we are denied access and we are not given the right to eat there or buy products,” Naert said. “That’s pretty painful and that’s pretty frustrating.”
Naert and Makiko were featured in an NBC DFW story last June on this subject. That story became at least part of the inspiration for Texas Representative Victoria Neave, R-Mesquite to sponsor HB 2992.
Naert said she is flattered that her struggle could lead to substantive reform in Texas, and noted that HB 2992 is a great step forward. She emphasized, however, that she is concerned about how it would be investigated and enforced.
“I think it’s pretty disgusting, honestly [that people] are misrepresenting themselves. They’re faking a disability by misrepresenting their service animal, and that’s pretty awful,” Naert said. “I appreciate that they love their dog and they want their dog to always be with them, but the law is designed for a reason and it’s to protect people with disabilities.”