Service Dogs






When I retired from the Yarmouth Police Department in 2001 after a line-of-duty injury that left me with severe chronic pain and a diagnosis of PTSD, I decided to train a dog to help me adjust to my new life. I was given a black Lab puppy by a Yarmouthport breeder and named her “Paxil” because I knew she would make me happy.

Paxil provides physical assistance by picking up items I drop, fetching phones, helping me climb stairs, telling me when to take my pain medications, opening and closing doors, tugging off jackets and shoes, operating light switches, and even taking the clothes out of the dryer and putting them on the counter for me to fold.

She provides psychiatric assistance by alerting me to people approaching from behind, waking me from nightmares, creating a furry comfort zone in crowds and distracting me with a paw in my lap or a nose in my face. 

When we first began working together, people were surprised to see us in the mall and at restaurants. Almost every time we went out in public, a manager or security guard would ask us to leave because “dogs aren't allowed.” I carried copies of the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations that gave us the right to be in public places and patiently handed them out to everyone who confronted us. As the years have passed, it's gotten a little easier. If we are approached now, it's usually by a curious stranger who has seen something about service dogs on television. 

HISTORY OF SERVICE 
The first service dogs as we know them were trained in New Jersey at The Seeing Eye. In 1928, an American named Morris Frank and his Swiss-trained guide dog, “Buddy,” campaigned tirelessly for federal recognition of guide dogs and earned the right for guide-dog teams to enter facilities that had been traditionally, and legally, off-limits to dogs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, dogs, monkeys and miniature horses were trained to assist with other disabilities, but they didn't enjoy the same federal rights of access as guide dogs. In the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA) officially gave people the right to use animals to mitigate the effects of disabilities other than sight loss.

It was a breakthrough, and a problem.

Although the ADA distinguished between “therapy” animals that visited nursing homes and hospitals to comfort patients and “service” animals that made life with disabilities easier, it didn't actually define what a service animal was. As the 2000s evolved, the ADA's vague regulation led to an inundation of animals, both wild and domesticated, being touted as service animals.

The Internet and media were rife with stories about people shopping, dining at restaurants and riding buses with parrots on their shoulders, ferrets in their pockets, snakes wrapped around their necks, pigs on leashes, and badly behaved dogs at their sides - one woman even rode a full-sized horse into supermarkets – while declaring that their animal was necessary because of their now federally recognized disability. The ambiguity in the ADA regulation made it illegal to ask someone to refrain from bringing his 9-foot boa constrictor or her snarling Great Dane into public places. The flood of bizarre amateur “helpers” was making it difficult for well-trained service animals to gain respect. Disabled Americans with legitimate service animals, fed-up business owners and confused law enforcement agencies clamored for some clarity.

On March 15, 2011, the ADA, which takes priority over local or state laws and regulations, revised its definition of service animals. It officially excluded all animals except dogs and miniature horses (defined as ranging in height from 24 inches to 34 inches at the shoulders and weighing between 70 and 100 pounds) from having public access and stated that the dogs and miniature horses must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Disabled people may still use other animals (goats, gerbils, cats, etc.) to assist them but only in places where those animals would normally be allowed to go, such as within the confines of their own homes and private vehicles, and friends' homes with permission.

The ADA also tightened another loophole by outlining the difference between “psychiatric service dogs” and “emotional support animals."

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to recognize the onset of psychiatric episodes and actively respond by performing tasks directly related to the person's disability, such as reminding the handler to take medicine, interrupting self-mutilation and removing disoriented handlers from dangerous situations.

An emotional support animal's sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support. The animal may or may not be able to discern that its owner is in distress, but it is not trained to do anything specific in response to this awareness. It merely provides comfort by being present. Emotional support animals are considered pets and do not have public-access rights. 



FOLLOWING THE LAW
But just because someone enters a public place with a dog or miniature horse doesn't mean the animal is a legitimate service animal. Last summer, a woman was asked to leave a Yarmouth consignment shop because the manager did not believe her dog was a real service dog. When she refused, police settled the dispute by verifying the woman's claim.

But there are people who want to take their pets everywhere they go and are willing to exploit any ignorance of the law to get their way. Most states have laws against misrepresenting an animal as a service animal. Managers of public facilities and police officers need to know how to identify a service animal.

There's a YouTube video of a man in a wheelchair bullying police officers who responded to a beach after complaints about his dog. The dog was not wearing any service dog equipment and had clearly been swimming. The man repeatedly admonishes the officers telling them, “If I say it's a service dog then you have to let it stay!”

That is not true, but identifying a service animal is not always simple. There are no national identification cards or certification programs; service dogs trained in any state or country are recognized by the ADA. Some states issue their own cards and certification letters, but since the federal regulations take precedence, state certification is not proof and cannot be required. Most service animals wear special vests or harnesses, but they are not mandated because they could interfere with the service animal's work or a person's disability could prevent their use. The size of the animal does not matter, except when classifying a miniature horse.

Basically, a service animal team consists of a disabled person and a dog or miniature horse trained to mitigate that disability, and the ADA provides simple tools for anyone questioning the legitimacy of a team.

When it isn't evident that a dog or miniature horse assists someone with an obvious disability, the ADA allows only two questions. The answers must be taken at face value. Only a federal judge can decide if a person is actually disabled or substantiate that an animal meets performance requirements.

The first question is, “Is the animal required because of a disability?” Follow-up questions about the nature of the disability are not allowed.

The second is, “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?” Asking for a demonstration of the animal's training is not permitted.

It is a service animal only if a disability exists and the answer to the second question describes an active, trained response or legitimate work performed on the disabled person's behalf. If not, the animal can be removed and excluded from future access to public areas.

ACCESS IS KEY 
So what is public access?

Federal regulations state that service animals are medical equipment that must be accommodated in the manner of crutches, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Therefore, state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public must allow disabled people with service animals access to all areas where the public is normally allowed to go, even if health codes prohibit animals. In many states, Massachusetts included, trainers of service animals have the same rights as service animal teams as long as the animal is well-behaved and housebroken. The rule of thumb is that access rights belong to the person, not to the service animal. If the person has a right to be there, an animal that meets the definition of a service animal has a right to be there.

Service animals are allowed at pools, beaches and playgrounds, but they are there to work, not play, so if the animal is running loose, swimming freely, chasing balls or playing with children, then it is not on duty and can be removed.

Of course, everyone needs a break from work once in a while, so an occasional visit to the woods, game of fetch or dip in the water isn't in violation of any rules, but if the animal's leisure activities interfere with other people it can be removed. If the animal is under control and at its handler's side, waiting at the water's edge to assist its handler in entering and exiting the water, or assisting the handler in the water because of a specific medical requirement, it must be accommodated.

Service animal teams visiting a person living in no-pet housing are not required to give notice to management and are permitted by invitation of the tenant to stay as long as necessary, even if the disabled person leaves the animal at the residence during an outing. Motels, hotels and inns cannot require prior arrangements or force a service dog team into a room normally reserved for guests with pets.

Enrolled students with a service animal must be allowed to attend school unless the school obtains a court injunction banning it and anyone who would normally be admitted to enter a school as a guest must be allowed if accompanied by a service animal.

Service animals cannot be denied access to public transportation and no operator of a public conveyance can refuse to transport them. Devout Muslim taxi drivers who refuse to pick up service dogs for religious reasons are in violation of federal and Massachusetts laws and in conflict with the Shariah Council, which has ruled that Muslims worldwide must accept, and may even use, dogs that are trained to assist disabled people.

Service animals cannot be excluded from movie theaters, concerts or auditoriums, but if a service animal makes noise during a performance it can be asked to leave unless the noise was an attempt to communicate with or alert its handler, the animal was deliberately provoked, or the noise was consistent with noises made by humans, such as barking during applause. If an animal is removed because of noise, that behavior cannot be used to restrict its admission to future events. 

HEALTH AND SERVICE 
Regardless of health codes or departmental regulations restricting pets, service animals are allowed in ambulances, police cars and other state and town vehicles. A service animal team cannot be denied transportation under any circumstance in which any other civilian would be transported.

Exceptions could occur if the presence of a service animal in the ambulance might interfere with patient care; jeopardize the safety of the crew, the patient or others; or cause damage to the ambulance or equipment. In such circumstances, personnel are expected to make every effort to reunite the patient with the service animal at the time of the patient's arrival at the hospital by arranging for simultaneous transport of the animal by the police department, animal control or the patient's family.

The ADA has determined that police departments have an obligation to accommodate a service animal in the same way as any other medical equipment unless the animal's presence would cause an alteration in the environment that would disrupt normal operations.
 
The ADA prohibits segregating or isolating service dog teams from other patrons, treating them less favorably than other patrons and charging fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. A business that normally requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets must waive the charge for service animals, but any business that normally charges patrons for damage that they cause can charge a disabled customer for damage caused by his service animal. Staff members at public facilities are not required to provide care or food for a service animal, but they are not prohibited from doing so voluntarily.

The ADA allows, but does not mandate, exclusion of a service animal when the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Health issues could arise in areas such as sterile operating rooms, some intensive-care units and areas where food is prepared, such as kitchens, freezers and walk-in refrigerators. Allergies are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service animals. When a person who is allergic and a person with a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility. If an animal is not housebroken, it can be removed. However, an indoor “accident” cannot be used as a reason to refuse entry the next time. Unless there is a specific medical reason necessitating it, a service animal can be restricted from using apparatus, chairs and other items provided for the use of humans. A miniature horse can be excluded if a facility cannot accommodate its type, size or weight; if its presence will compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility; if it isn't housebroken; or if it isn't under the handler's control.

Safety exclusions could result if a service animal displays vicious behavior. Viciousness must be an overt display of aggression that is unprovoked. Barking and jumping should first be investigated as a medical emergency since a service dog could be trained to bark, jump or tug at its handler's clothing to call attention to a medical condition. A PTSD service dog may seem confrontational when blocking strangers from approaching its handler, but this is a trained response, not aggression.

Safety concerns cannot be assumptions based on someone's past experience with animals or on his perception of aggression because of its breed's reputation. A person's fear of dogs or miniature horses is not a valid reason for denying access or refusing service to a service animal team.

Private homes and private clubs can exclude service animals if they choose, but if privately owned properties such as gyms and malls serve the public they also must serve patrons with service animals.

HUMAN BEHAVIOR
 When encountering a service animal team, do not distract the animal with whistles, calls or by petting it. The animal has a job to do and its handler could be injured if the animal doesn't remain focused. Some service animals are able to interact with strangers, but look carefully for any tags or patches that read something like, “Do Not Pet” or “Working Dog, Please Don't Distract” before asking its handler if you may pet it or speak to it. Never touch the disabled person without an invitation and never touch the service animal or its harness or leash, period.

Do not separate the service animal from its handler. Service dogs are specifically trained to remain calm in excitable situations, but they are animals and might show aggression or fear if their handler is startled or injured.

If you want to assist a service dog team, ask the person what to do. Some mobility service animals are trained to step aside and allow humans to help their handlers. Animals that guide the blind are trained to “follow” on command a specific sighted person while still guiding their handlers. If your offer to help is turned down, don't be insulted; the purpose of a service animal is to lessen its handler's dependence on other people. If a disabled person doesn't need your help, her service animal is doing its job.

If you believe a handler is abusing or neglecting his service animal, report the incident to your police department or animal control officer. Generally, service animal training facilities retain ownership of the animals and recall them from handlers who fail to meet their expectations of care.

For more information 
To speak with an ADA specialist about service animals and access rights, call 800-514-0301 between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Fridays or 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. Thursdays.


(originally published Cape Cod Times 2013.04.03) 







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