Veteran service animal bill moves to governor's desk

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Catherine Best and her service animal, Jingles, were denied service from a McComb business. Best and Jingles' trainer, Jeffery McCall, who wrote the bill, pushed for House Bill 944 that would protect dogs trained to help their owners with PTSD. The bill now heads to the governor's desk after clearing the state legislature. 

Catherine Best had night terrors after her deployment in Iraq in 2007-2008. She never knew what would set off her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and didn't have the confidence to go out in public.

That all changed when Best met Jingles, an Alaskan Malamute and German Shepard mix, who helps Best manage her PTSD, anxiety and depression.

"I wouldn't be able to do anything without him," said Best, an Army veteran living in McComb. "He wakes me up from my nightmares. If I'm depressed, he'll lick my face or ask me to take him on a walk... he will pull me out of it."

But Best's fight didn't end there. 

Mississippi business owners would refuse to give Best service, citing Jingles as their reason. Though she's protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Mississippi offered no protections for PTSD service animals.

For three years Best and Jingles' trainer, Jeffery McCall, fought to get service animals the same protections as other animals. Finally, the bill passed in the House on Feb. 1 and the Senate on Wednesday and heads to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk for his signature.

"I am ecstatic about it passing," Best said. "We've been fighting for this for three years."

Fifty-one of the Mississippi's 52 senators voted in favor of the bill, with one senator absent for the voting. Similarly, 117 of 122 state representatives voted for the bill, while two voted against it, two were absent and one seat is vacant. 

"An almost unanimous vote means everything to me," Best said. "To me, that means that everyone thought it was a great idea." 

McCall, owner of The International K-9 Foundation in McComb, has trained canines since 2007 in Summit, Mississippi. Beyond basic obedience training, McCall said he trains emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and dogs for those with PTSD. 

"In Mississippi, we don't do a lot of service dogs. People don't know there's a person who does it," McCall said. "Nobody in the state really knows that there are facilities that do it in-state, they think it's out-of-state."

This unfamiliarity might be why veterans such as Best, with no visible disability, get denied service. 

"I look like an average person. (Business owners) don't know what I'm going through," Best said. "They just assume and I get kicked out of a store because I look like a normal human being."

Hearing Best's stories about McComb's business owners, McCall decided to do something and contacted his local state representative, Sam Mims. Mims asked McCall to write a bill he could introduce.

"The first time (in 2016) it never made it out of committee," McCall said. "Some representatives thought it might be over-regulating."

But Best didn't give up. She pushed for the bill to be reintroduced in this year's session and McCall rewrote the bill, stripping away guidelines and minimum standards.

McCall said he based the bill's previous standards on the ADA's Public Access Standards, which suggests that service animals should be able to function in traffic, go grocery shopping and go into a public restroom with their owner – all without losing control. 

"The dog needs to at least be able to sit if you're passing it off as a service animal," McCall said. 

For the final version of the bill to pass, McCall had to remove those standards. Still, he anticipates that Mississippi may need to revisit the issue in the future. 

Florida, McCall said, has made it a crime to have a fake service dog registration, something that Mississippi may need to address in the future. 

Though Best started the bill, McCall said the bill would protect several different types of animals, including therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and PTSD dogs for non-veterans.

"The exciting part about this bill is that it covers all three categories," McCall said. "My hope (with this bill) is that if they're in need of a service dog that they can get it.

"In Mississippi, if you have a service dog, you'll be fine. Mississippi has your back."

For Best, she said she hopes to see more service dogs in Mississippi. 

"A lot of us come back with scars you can't see," Best said. 

Best said that other veterans in need could find comfort in a four-legged furry companion. 

"I guess they're afraid? Maybe some veterans don't want to put all of it out there," Best said about the lack of PTSD service dogs for veterans in Mississippi. "I hope that a veteran can have the confidence to walk out of their house or apartment and don't have to be afraid anymore."

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