A new law that took effect September 1 increased the penalty for falsely claiming pets as officially recognized service animals.
Before the law was enacted, the punishment for “improper use of a service animal,” which is classified as a misdemeanor, was a fine of no more than $300 and 30 hours of community service.
HB 4164 effectively increased the penalty for committing this misdemeanor, more than tripling the fine, bumping it up from $300 to $1,000. However, it maintains the same amount of community service hours required.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division says that businesses or government facilities may only ask whether an animal is a service animal and what task the animal is trained to perform. Questions regarding documentation of the animal’s status and those regarding the disability of a person are expressly prohibited.
Donny Castro-Conde, owner of Dog Training Elite in Austin, told KXAN that his business has seen more false service animal identifications than real ones. He also said he was pleased the new law went into effect.
“We have to trust that that person saying they have a trained service dog is being honest,” said Castro-Conde, per KXAN. “You can’t ask for proof, you can’t ask them to show you their tasks, you can’t ask them what disability that person has.”
While private or public establishments are prohibited from asking such things, the DOJ notes` that a business or government office can have an animal removed from the premises if the animal is not “housebroken” or if the animal is out of control and the owner cannot get it under control.
A service animal may also be refused if the animal’s presence would “fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public” by the business or government office.
Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin), who supported the passage of the new law, recognized that false service dogs can present an issue for actual service animals.
“I know it has become a problem for those people who really need those animals to help them get around,” said Goodwin, per KXAN. “They do provide a very valuable service, but they can be interrupted by other pets that aren’t trained.”
The prevalence of phony service animals has also reportedly impacted the public’s perception of service animals.
“They see a dog in a vest, and they no longer think to themselves this is something that’s important, [or] this is something that is helping someone,” said John Cunningham, a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions who testified in favor of the law when it was being considered by the Texas Legislature, per Chron. “They think, ‘Oh, I also want to be able to take my puppy with me on a plane.'”