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Service Dogs, Horses Would Be Allowed Anywhere In Public Under Florida Bill

service dog and servicemen
Sgt. Mary Junell
U.S. Army National Guard

A bill aimed at making it easier for people with service animals to get fair treatment in stores and housing moved on to its last House committee today. The bill would require public places to accommodate disabled people who require the help of trained dogs or miniature horses.  

Toni King sat in her office Thursday afternoon at Lighthouse of the Big Bend, a nonprofit that helps people with vision loss. King’s service dog slept on a big plaid cushion beside her. As she talked, she twisted a dog-bone-shaped charm on her silver necklace.

“I actually have a necklace on that has a little dog bone on it. And I got it for my birthday two years ago. I love dogs, I always have. But yeah, I wear this thinking a lot about my boy,” she says.

The dog is a 2-year-old black and tan Labrador. King doesn’t share his name, she says, because that can distract him from working. She’s had people feed him and pet him without asking her. And when she travels the state helping other blind people learn independence, she says sometimes she and her dog run into trouble. 

“One convenience store owner was very, very adamant that he wanted me out of his establishment, so we did so, but I later pulled up the ADA law and sent that to the owner of that business,” she says.

The federal ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, says businesses and housing must accommodate service animals for people with disabilities.  But Rep. Jimmie Smith (R-Inverness) says Florida law lags behind in spelling out that protection. His bill aims to fix that and also expands the definition of “service animal” to include dogs and horses trained to help people with mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Smith says, “They get into a certain mode because of their PTSD. Well the dogs can actually be trained to A) Make sure that people don’t crowd the individual by stepping up in front of somebody or B) They can start tugging on the individual.”

Smith says the animals his bill protects must be trained to perform a specific function related to a person’s disorder. That’s why he included a provision allowing landlords to ask for verification of the disorder.

But, as the bill mentions, federal housing law also protects another class of creature called “emotional support animals,” meaning they too must be allowed to live in pet-free buildings free of charge, even though they are not required to be trained and can be any type of animal. That’s caused headaches for landlords. Community Association Leadership Lobby director Yeline Goin testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the emotional support animal industry is rife with fraud.

“There are so-called medical professionals who advertise that for $99 they will write you a letter for an emotional support animal,” she said.

King says emotional support animals can cause problems for people like her with “legitimate” service animals too.

“I’ve had friends whose guide dogs have been attacked by little dogs on planes, and they had brought their dog on the plane claiming it was an emotional support animal,” she says.

Smith’s bill doesn’t do anything to specifically address emotional support animal fraud—something Goin’s group is hoping for. But the bill does make misrepresenting an animal as a service animal a crime punishable by up to two months in jail and a $500 fine. In addition, the offender would have to do 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves people with disabilities.