Legislation makes crime of hurting service dogs

Sunday, May 22, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Donna Jacobs has used a service dog for years to help her walk and to alert her when she's going to have a seizure.

But several times, at a park or a store, a pet dog has jumped on Patra, her mixed-breed dog. It's gotten to the point that Patra gets nervous around other dogs, leaving Jacobs unable to drive much and largely homebound.

Her experience is the reason Jacobs has pushed for legislation making it a crime for someone to harass or injure a service dog, or allow their pet to do so. The measure, which passed during this year's legislative session, also provides grounds for service dog users to sue for the costs of nursing their animals back to health or replacing them.

"What I found nationwide were service dogs were being attacked by other dogs, someone's pet dogs," said Jacobs, 52, of Lohman. "These dogs are not pets, they're specially trained for people with disabilities."

The legislation now awaits action by Gov. Matt Blunt, who is still reviewing the bill but is expected to sign it.

Jacobs, who lobbied for four years before finally getting the bill passed, said she had to educate lawmakers and others that there are many kind of service dogs, from guide dogs that help the blind to those, like Patra, that alert their owners and respond to medical episodes.

She said a big goal of the legislation is just making people aware that they shouldn't interfere with service dogs while they're working. Even if they intend them no harm, a child, for example, could distract the dog, which could be disastrous if it's helping its owner walk or balance at that moment. And if something happens to the dog, it can cost thousands of dollars to replace.

"A service dog is like a wheelchair, hearing aid, cane. They're an assistive resource," she said.

Another piece of the bill makes it illegal for anyone to impersonate a disabled person to receive service dog accommodations, or to pretend that their pet is a service dog.

Bobette Figler has used a service dog for about a decade to help her cope with multiple sclerosis. She said the penalties for pretending to be disabled are important too, because someone faking that situation hurts the credibility of those who truly need the animals to handle daily tasks.

"We need that protection because sometimes people impersonate or take their own pet out. It really sets a precedent, it's not good for the rest of us," said Figler, who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy.

Figler said her dog, a black Labrador retriever named Flint, has never been attacked or stolen, but she said other people will whistle at him or try to feed him, which can be harmful. She said it would be very difficult to get by without her dog.

"For people like myself, we're dependent on these animals," she said. "When that dog is not there, it's like having a tool, an extension of your arm or leg, gone."

The measure passed the Senate 33-0 and the House 147-4.

The Missouri Federation of Animal Owners often finds itself fighting animal rights groups, but with this bill, the federation voiced no opposition, as it was tailored specifically to service dogs.

"We certainly uphold service dogs and the work they perform," said president Karen Strange. "Sometimes they get a little carried away with penalties and so forth."

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