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Faux Paws, Mo' Laws: Texas Tightens Service Animal Fraud Penalties

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Loving dogs may be universal, but Americans have a rather rabid case of furbaby fever. Most of the U.S. lives with a pet, and the trend is only growing. Given that they're our best friends and all, we like keeping our dogs around wherever we go. But as you'll know if you've ever tried to walk your dog into a Sumerian bar, it can get tricky when it's not your property. Although it may be understandable that pet owners want to include their furry friends in their daily lives as much as possible, it's also reasonable that proprietors of establishments have qualms about animals on their property. Rules are [usually] there for a good reason; not only could dogs cause messes, but they could unpredictably bite at people when anxious and in a new environment.

At the same time, you regularly see exceptions made for dogs in special vests: service animals. Have you ever wondered whether or not they're legit? What are the rules? In some cases, such as airline flights or long-term apartment rentals, you'll probably be asked to provide some sort of paperwork to show that your canine companion is certified for a service. But in many cases, such as restaurants and retail shops, no one will question a customer who comes in tow with a dog sporting a "Service Animal" vest. The proprietors probably don't want to pick a bone on whether Fido is bone fide. In any case, it certainly leaves other customers wondering – and maybe even getting ideas.

Since there are no restrictions on buying service dog vests, anyone can get them online. They look legit, and that's often enough to pass. You can even get a fake service training certification. These purchases are on the rise, and it's making a headache for government regulators.

Earlier Laws on Service Animal Fraud

In Texas, state officials were getting increasing reports of dog owners trying to fake their way into an exception to these rules. For example, Texans were reported falsely passing their dogs off as service animals to not only them in restaurants, but also to avoid paying pet fees on their apartments with restrictions on animals.

This is neither new nor uniquely Texan. Various states have been facing problems with people pretending their pooches are proper. California has had service animal fraud statutes since 1995. Many other states have implemented similar laws in the past few years, including Virginia and Colorado around 2016. In 2017, Florida also enacted a law protecting the legitimacy of service dogs and their owners, making it a misdemeanor with penalties for anyone who misrepresents the service status of their animal. The same year, Texas soon followed suit. It passed a law very much in line with Florida's.

The Texas law made it a misdemeanor for anyone "who uses a service animal with a harness or leash of the type commonly used by persons with disabilities who use trained animals" to show that the animal is specially trained when it's not. They made this an offense punishable with up to $300 in fines and 30 hours of community service.

The American Kennel Club stood by the Texas legislature's decision, condemning anyone "attempting to benefit from a dog's service dog status when the individual using the dog is not a person with a disability." They analogize the misuse of service animals to parking in the handicapped driver spot when you're able-bodied or feigning a terminal illness to go on a Make-A-Wish trip.

For people with disabilities who use legitimate, highly trained animals that cost a lot of money, this misuse can be understandably frustrating. Not only do untrained animals in knockoff vests mar the reputation of service animals, but they can turn establishments unfriendly to the genuine ones.

Texas's Take Two

But the new law was apparently not stringent enough. Texas continued to face a flurry of furry fraud, and decided that the legal stakes needed to be heightened. Its legislature stated concern about people "exploiting the disabled," and aimed to revise the law to deter these actions by ensuring adequate punishment. The state just recently modified the statute to be even stricter, and it's already effective as of the date of this blog.

The new law now raises the cap of the fine from $300 to $1,000. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the law also expanded the type of behavior that was illegal. Now, it's not just dressing your dog in a getup that makes it look like a service animal. The new law makes it an offense to do anything at all to falsely represent the service status of your dog.

What should pet owners do? Well, if your service animal isn't certified, don't try to pretend it is; depending on where you live, you could even end up in jail. If you think you qualify for getting a service animal or want to train your current dog to be one, read more at FindLaw's Complete Guide to Service Animal Laws, Rights, and Resources. And if you are already certified with a service animal, hope that the petty pet parents don't continue to ruin it for you.

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