HOUSTON - Everywhere you look these days, some dog has a service vest slapped on its back, but for those who truly need a service animal's assistance, the difference between the real thing and an impostor can be a matter of life and death.
Braden Deupree, 22, is a student at Texas A&M University who was diagnosed with epilepsy in the fifth grade. His service dog, Jessie, is always by his side. His seizures are unpredictable. Or, at least, they are to him.
"She can touch me on my lap or leg, and that is her way to alert me that I am about to have a seizure," Deupree said. "Then I can lay down and take a seat somewhere quiet, and that will keep me safe from bumping into things or falling."
Jessie's training was provided by Give Us Paws, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs for veterans and the disabled. It's run by Paul Beuscher, a Navy veteran who talked to scores of veterans who were suffering physically and emotionally and recognized the need to pair trained canines with those who needed them most.
But the prevalence and abuse of the service dog label comes at a cost to those Beuscher and his team are trying to help most.
"It really is disability fraud because it jeopardizes people who really need these service dogs," Beuscher said.
The problem is twofold, with animals being misrepresented as service dogs by their owners and businesses either not knowing the law or being inundated with so many imposters that they can't spot a real service dog from a fake one.
James Berrie knows this all too well. He had a relapse of multiple sclerosis in 2012 and now he uses a wheelchair. He relies on Sven, his service dog, to help pull him around so he can rest his arms.
When he tried to take Sven to the Houston depository, he said, he was turned away.
"The front gate person said, 'No, we can't let you in.' Well, he is a service dog. This is a government agency. You should know this. You should know the law," Berrie said.
Beuscher said the law needs to be toughened up so these incidents don't happen.
"The federal law has to be changed, so they are stricter and they have some type of certification in place," Beuscher said.
Currently, the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that there are two questions that a business is allowed to ask to determine if an animal is a service animal:
1) Is the animal required because of a disability?
2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Channel 2 will continue to follow this story to keep track of potential proposals to change the current laws.
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