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Oregon looks to tighten reins on service animals

By Kandra Kent
Published On: May 01 2013 10:10:51 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Kandra Kent spoke with lawmakers, dog trainers, and a Bend woman who has a service dog that also serves as an emotional support dog, about a new bill.

BEND, Ore. -

A bill that recently passed in the Oregon Senate aims to clarify the definition of a service animal.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Jeff Kruse of Roseburg, says too many people abuse the system claiming their pets are service animals.

Kruse said Wednesday it's hurting people who actually need the animals.

But some animals claimed to  be necessary aren't necessarily protected.

Bend resident Jennifer Buntain says her dog saved her life.

The Gulf War Veteran suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Buntain said she was sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Now she suffers extreme anxiety in public.

"You have to interact with other people when you are out in public," she said. "It's really tough. He (her dog) makes it, where otherwise I wouldn't leave my house."

Her dog, 'Red,' is service dog, helping her with mobility from a knee injury.

He's also an emotional support animal, easing her anxiety.

Red wears two hats, and each job is not the same -- nor protected the same under state or federal law.

The new bill would require that in order to be a service animal, the animal must perform specific tasks for their handlers.

Service animals would also be required to be either dogs or miniature horses.

It's an effort to make Oregon laws conform with federal standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. New ADA regulations were approved back in 2011.

Service animals, by law, must be allowed at any establishment where the public is welcome.

Kruse said his bill doesn't set any rules for enforcement of keeping other animals out of public places, but he hopes it will encourage people to keep pets at home.

He said a benefit to the bill is "giving them (businesses) the ability to tell a person who wanted to come into a restaurant with a snake and call it a service animal, and say, 'No, that's not a service animal, and you can't bring it in."'

A snake may be an extreme example. But even emotional support animals and therapy dogs are treated differently than service animals -- a gray area Kruse admits lawmakers didn't want to tackle, at least for now.

"The whole comfort animal thing is really so new, we don't really have a lot of history behind it to really make definitive decisions yet," Kruse said.

Under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals must  be allowed to live with their owners, and there are also laws allowing them to fly on planes. But the animals do not have to be permitted in businesses, or anywhere else pets aren't allowed.

Therapy dog trainers NewsChannel 21 spoke with say therapy dogs can only be allowed in public places or businesses when they are on official business -- aiding in emergencies or disasters -- helping strangers, not their owners.

However, it would be tough for businesses to enforce, since by law, they're not allowed to ask people what their disability is.

Also, people with disabilities are not required to mark their animals with identification or carry paperwork, although many do.

For Buntain, hearing the news about emotional service animals is heartbreaking.

"To see those people that need so much help not be able to leave their home,  I think would be a crime," she said.

It's been a tough road for Buntain and Red -- she was homeless for  years -- and when she finally got a place to rent, her landlord, who had a no-pet policy, tried to evict her.

Buntain said her landlord claimed she didn't need the dog.

"(It made me feel) degraded, very small, icky," Buntain said.

Buntain battles the stigma every day, saying people out in public and in businesses don't always understand how much Red helps her lead a normal life.

"Without him, I would be lost," she said.

Kruse said another part of the bill is designed to protect people who purchase service animals. It would require that certified trainers train the dogs, and Kruse says it will help eliminate people who sell service animals for large profits that don't have the proper training.

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