AUSTIN, Texas — People with disabilities rely on their service animals for many reasons.
Some dogs are trained to be the eyes for a person who's blind or the ears for someone who's deaf. They can sense low blood sugar, an on-coming seizure or even a psychiatric episode. Working dogs are really essential for handlers, like Steve Elliot, and anything that can distract them could be harmful.
Elliot received his first guide dog about a year and a half ago. The dog's name is Laird and Elliot told 25 News he's completely changed his life.
It's just so freeing to know that when you go out, you have this companion with you to keep you safe and guide you around obstacles," Elliott said. "You feel like you have no barriers when you have a guide dog."
Laird trained with Guide Dogs for the Blind to help him get around, but Elliot said that can be challenging when he runs into another animal.
"From time to time, you're out in public or at the grocery store and all of a sudden your dog stops," he said. "You don't know why your dog is stopping and you're in a part of a grocery store where you don't think there are any obstacles. Then it turns out somebody's got their chihuahua in their cart and it's growling, and laird doesn't know how to react."
Elliot's neighbor Pat Pound has had many similar encounters with fraudulent service dogs when out with her own guide dog, Cayenne.
"I never have trouble with people who handle their dogs well and train their dogs well," Pound said. "But in public places it's a huge issue."
She said one time at the airport, a dog in a service vest attacked her guide dog.
"I almost fell," she recalled. "I was trying to make sure my dog was okay, I dropped my sack, coffee went everywhere on me, on my bag. By the time I could collect myself because I was crying, upset, and trying to see if my dog was harmed, there was no one around to deal with it."
Pound described the event as horrible, but not uncommon. She said more and more people are buying fake vests online to bring their pets in public.
"We're going to have a lot more dogs in public places because people desire to have their pets and they use this avenue to make themselves believe that they purchased the right to do that," Pound said.
A bill introduced in the state legislature this session is aiming to address this growing issue. HB 4164 would increase the fines for faking a service animal from $300 to $1,000. It would also require 30 hours of community service at a disability related non-profit.
"That person could very well rob somebody of their independence because if their dog attacks a guide dog or a service dog, that's a $50,000 dog that took two years to train and has a ten-year working life and all of a sudden that's just ripped away," CEO of Service Dogs, INC Sheri Soltes said.
Soltes said she worked with lawmakers on this developing this bill because it's so important.
"It's like someone taking your cane or your wheelchair or even your legs," she said. "You lose your ability to have access to a lot of facilities, so it's really doing a lot of damage to people."
There are four bills related to service dogs making their way through the Texas Legislature.
HB 4164 would raise fines and require community service hours. HB 1179 would extend restraining orders to the service animal of the person who files it. If passed, HB 5206 would require sites that sell fake vests to clearly state the equipment does not make a pet a service animal without proper training. HB 2951 would raise the training standards of PTSD service dogs for veterans.