Canines, specifically domesticated dogs, are uniquely positioned to be useful in our lives. They are socially in tune with humans. Dogs, for instance, are one of the few animals that understand the meaning of a human pointing a finger toward an object or location; not even monkeys or apes have made that logical leap. Dogs also have a high level of intelligence, a desire to please, an innate curiosity, and an incredible sense of smell. They are also relatively strong animals. All these characteristics make them able to assist both individuals and societies to accomplish specific tasks, often tasks no human could do nearly as well.
To understand how Federal laws work with these animals, it is important to separate the dogs into three groups: service dogs are trained to help disabled individuals to work and live more independently by means both obvious (i.e., seeing eye dogs) and subtle (a diabetes assistance dog monitors a person’s breath for signs of low blood sugar). Working dogs are trained to accomplish tasks from the traditional (sheep-herding) to the high-tech (while bomb-sniffing dogs are well known, research is being done to train dogs to sniff for compounds generated by tumors in the low concentrations of early-stage cancers). Finally, emotional assistance dogs are not trained for any specific skill, but act to calm and mitigate a human’s mental or psychiatric disability.
So what are the legal issues regarding these animals? It’s first useful to recognize that all dogs are very social animals and work best in small teams. This is illustrated not only by packs of hunting dogs or teams that do search and rescue work, but also by canine/human teams that bond closely together. Most working dogs work as part of a human/canine pair who live together both on and off the job. When the human half of a working team retires, it’s not uncommon for the dog to retire as well. It is not ideal for a dog to be housed away from its partner and then come together as a team for its “job”; the dog needs to learn to trust and understand its human partner by living with him or her.
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has very specific rules regarding service dogs. First it notes that a service dog is only defined as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. For landlords and communities, it is required that disabled persons be given “reasonable accommodations” as needed in order to fully use and enjoy their home; allowing these people to be accompanied by their service animal is such an accommodation as defined by the law.
Only limited inquiries may be allowed: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? If so, then what work or task has the dog been trained to do? It is not legal to ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require any identification or documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. The ADA does not accept allergies or fear of dogs as acceptable reasons to refuse people with service animals access or service. The disabled person cannot be asked to remove the service animal from the premises unless the dog is out of control and the person hasn’t taken effective action to control it, or the dog is not housebroken. Also, no fee can be charged that isn’t charged to those without an animal; if a fee is charged for persons with pets, that fee must be waived for service animals.
Emotional support animals, although not covered by the ADA since they aren’t given specific skill training, are covered by the FHA (Fair Housing Act). In this regard, emotional support animals aren’t considered pets, but as an assistive aid like a wheelchair. In this case, however, the person may be asked to provide a letter from an appropriate authority (therapist or physician) and must meet the definition of a person with a disability. There have been legal cases involving condominium associations and unit owners with assistance or service animals to back up these standings. However, there is controversy and some “gray area” between the FHA and ADA specifically because the ADA only covers animals that are trained for specific actions and the FHA does not.
Be aware that not all training is obvious, as not all disabilities are obvious. An autism service dog, for instance, can be trained to alert on behavior displaying overstimulation or shutdown and then apply pressure to the child’s foot or lap to alert him or her to the behavior displayed. This helps the child to catch him- or herself before the behavior gets ingrained. Epilepsy seizure dogs are trained to alert family members (either by barking or sounding a mechanical alarm) or to lie atop or beneath the child having the seizure to prevent injury; some dogs even learn to spot an oncoming seizure before its onset. Some training is unexpected by the public: a mobility assistance dog can not only be trained to help pull a wheelchair or brace a person who has lost his or her balance, but may also be trained to hold open doors, to pick up a dropped item, or even to put laundry in the washing machine and pull it from the dryer.
So how should you behave when around one of these dogs? Always ask the dog’s handler. He or she will be able to tell you whether you’d be interfering with its work. If the dog is wearing a vest, the dog is on duty and should not be distracted; it is best not to pet or talk to the dog because it is on alert for specific sights, sounds, scents, or behaviors. When the vest is off, a service dog is more relaxed and approachable. If, however, an emergency were to happen while the vest is off, the dog won’t shrug its shoulders and say “Sorry, I’m on break”; the dog is always on duty to some extent, so it is best to always ask the handler’s permission before attempting to interact with the animal.
by Vince DiFriscio
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