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Service Dogs Not Welcome — A Look into the Challenge of Public Access

For the last two months, I’ve been volunteering with paws4people, Inc.’s paws4vets Program as a puppy socializer. You all undoubtedly have seen photos of DAPHNE come across the IAVA social media feed. She’s grown so much in just a few months!

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Unfortunately, this is DAPHNE’s last week at IAVA. On Monday, she’ll be on her way to the paws4prisons Program, which is conducted at five West Virginia Corrections facilities. DAPHNE will receive her basic and advanced obedience and service dog training. Her inmate handlers will teach DAPHNE a minimum of 100 commands including laser-designated retrieval and reading!

The last few months have been a whirlwind. I’ve learned so much about puppy-raising, puppy-socialization and even more about the world of service dogs. DAPHNE has pretty much gone everywhere with me — to IAVA’s DC office, grocery stores, restaurants, retail stores and parks. You name it, she’s likely been there and done that.

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For the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how welcome we’ve been, particularly because DAPHNE is a service dog in-training and not yet a service animal covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Rather, her access is granted by various state laws that allow her access to areas where the public is normally allowed to go. Given that, I expected some questions from business owners. In the time I’ve had her I’ve only experienced that once. But that experience was enough to give me a small glimpse into the challenges that individuals with service dogs face when it comes to public access.

The other night I went to a restaurant with DAPHNE. The staff greeted us very pleasantly, and as they were seating us, the manager asked for DAPHNE’s “certification paperwork.” He insisted that others who have come into his restaurant with service dogs had paperwork. I politely explained that businesses may not require documentation, such as proof that the dog has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service dog, as a condition for entry. I then decided to use this as a teaching moment, to tell him that “certification paperwork” is a common misperception. There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. Those documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the U.S. Department of Justice of Civil Rights Division does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service dog.

Also, let him know that in situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service dog, businesses can ask two questions:
1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
They cannot, however, ask to see the task performed or ask about the person’s disability.

There are also requirements for the dog’s handler. The dog must be under the control of the handler at all times. Business owners can request that the dog leave if it is out of control and the handler does not take action to correct it.

It took me repeating this a few times for the manager to accept it. He was pretty adamant that we should have paperwork, but I think my ability to recite the law without hesitation made him rethink his request.

  • While I didn’t go more into detail with the manager on other aspects of the law, I encouraged him to look it up and become familiar. Some of the other facets of the ADA in regard to service dogs are as follows:
  • The ADA does not require service dogs to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
  • Under the ADA, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. No other animal, wild or domestic, can serve as a service animal.
  • A service dog must be trained before it can be taken into public places. The ADA, however, does not require service dogs to be professionally trained.
  • Persons with disabilities have the right to train their dogs themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program, like paws4people, which spends up to 2 years and $36,000 to train and place a service dog with its client.

Unfortunately, because the ADA is fairly generous in its definition of a service dog, it leaves the field open for those without trained service dogs to represent their pets and untrained dogs as service dogs. The big problem is when a dog is not properly trained, behaves badly and disturbs the operation of a business. That experience can cause business owners to be more skeptical of even a well-trained service dog having access to their facilities and being on their premises.

At the end of the day, the manager allowed me and DAPHNE to continue to our table. This reinforced for me the importance of business owners ensuring their staff is trained on what the ADA does and doesn’t say as well as the rights afforded to people with disabilities. Fortunately, I knew the law and was able to calmly share that information with the manager.

This situation really made me think about how veterans with disabilities, particularly “invisible” disabilities like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual trauma, would feel having to defend bringing their service dogs into that restaurant and others that do not have a working knowledge of their responsibilities under the ADA. If I had been a veteran with a disability entering that business with my service dog, I might have perceived that interaction as confrontational and it could have had a very negative impact on my recovery process.

Therefore, the moral of the story—take the time to learn the law. To learn more, please visit:
http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html

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