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Texas Businesses Prep for New Service Dog Regulations

Business leaders say they support the changes that will make state law more closely mirror federal guidelines, but see the legislation as “just one more thing that big government is telling business owners that they have to do.”

Adan Gallegos relies on his service dog, Bootz, to cope with the effects of war. The duo helped to inspire legislation that come Jan. 1 will have state law more closely mirror federal ADA guidelines.

*Correction Appended

Bootz is an unexpected service dog — a rat terrier Adan Gallegos says he couldn’t function in public without. Since 2010, the disabled Army veteran in San Antonio has relied on Bootz to remind him to take his medication, keep him calm in large crowds and alert him to someone approaching from behind.

“What I was getting was a lot of people questioning — they’re used to seeing a person who is blind that has golden retrievers or labs,” Gallegos said. “And I have this small rat terrier, and I have to educate people that it is a PTSD service dog.”

Come Jan. 1, state law will come into line with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which lists post-traumatic stress disorder as a condition that qualifies for the use of a service dog. House Bill 489, by state Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, outlines what constitutes a service animal, where they're allowed to be and the rights of their owners.

The legislation spells out the two questions a business's employees can ask the owner of a service dog, if the person’s disability is not apparent. In accordance with ADA guidelines, an employee will only be able to inquire whether the service dog is required because the person has a disability and what type of work the dog is trained to perform. 

“I’m advising my members to give every one of their employees a sheet of paper that has the two questions,” said Will Newton, Texas state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “And it’s sad that we’ve come to that, but there are two questions, and if you deviate from those two questions, then you’re subject to legal action.”

Business owners who violate the law face up to a $300 fine and 30 hours of community service.

Newton said he worried the legislation would subject NFIB’s 25,000 members — many of whom are veterans themselves — to lawsuits. He called the original version of the legislation “an ADA lawyer’s dream.”

“I didn’t want to create a bill that would create opportunity to just get people in trouble,” Menéndez said. “That was never my intention.”

NFIB and Texans for Lawsuit Reform were among the groups that worked with him to narrow the bill’s scope. One change defined “service animals” as “canines,” limiting the potential for someone to bring a pony into a restaurant and call it a service animal, Newton said.

Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law this summer in San Antonio, alongside Bootz and Gallegos. “This bill is a smart way for us to give back and help any Texan, including our veterans, lead a healthy, productive life,” Perry said.

Bootz and Gallegos helped to inspire the legislation.

Bootz wears a harness that identifies him as a service dog. But in October 2011, that wasn’t enough to stop the owner of Billy Bob's Beds in San Antonio from throwing the pair out of his store. Gallegos filed a lawsuit against Bill Gholson for the way he was treated. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Menéndez said that the incident showed the gaps that existed between the ADA and state law and that he wanted Texas law to more clearly reflect federal guidelines. 

“We think we brought some clarity to the issue,” Menéndez said.

And fairness: People who fraudulently portray a dog as a service animal will be subject to the same penalties as business owners.

Gholson has already changed how he does business. His store website displays a banner welcoming both members of the military and service dogs inside his store. Gholson said he's personally seen the benefit service dogs provide to veterans.

Newton says that businesses in general are ready to adhere to the new regulations, but that they’re “getting fed up with all the mandates, with all the big government coming out of not just Washington, but Austin.”

*Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the law included the eligibility requirements for service dogs, saying that they must be trained by a person certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue or a similarly recognized state or national agency. That provision was not included in the final legislation.

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