Federal law stipulates that a Service Animal is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability” and that a Service Dog teams are allowed to enter areas where the public is normally allowed to go. However, a Service Dog team’s civil rights may be occasionally challenged by well-meaning people trying to keep pets out of the establishment. While stressful, these challenges are typically easy to handle. Sometimes, though, a little more work is required.
There is a wealth of information concerning Service Dog rights, access and disputes at www.ada.gov. It is easy to get lost or bogged down in all of the laws and documentation, though, and it can take a lot time and patience to get through it all. That being said, one of the best places to begin is the ADA’s 2010 revision of how a Service Animal is defined. Often, a simple meet-and-greet with the on–site authority of said establishment or entity (like the manager of a restaurant) is enough to settle the access challenge and allow the team access. Sometimes, the dispute doesn’t end there and it has to be taken further.
Be polite, professional, knowledgeable and calm
The first step of an access dispute is often the hardest. Remain calm and logical. Most of the time, those who try to deny you and your Service Dog access aren’t trying to be malicious. They simply don’t know the law or think they or their establishment is exempt. It is likely nothing personal. Remember that if you are in public, you are likely being recorded on video — and your actions and those of your dog can help your case — or hurt it. Leave nothing but an excellent impression.
Be a Public Educator if you are able, but don’t feel bad if you can’t
Anyone who’s used a Service Dog for any length of time can tell you first hand, that there are many ways Service Dogs do not make life easier. You often feel judged (“but you don’t look disabled!”) or questioned (“your dog is too small/too big/not the right breed”) or worse, encounter those who have appointed themselves as a kind of gatekeeper (“I saw a report on the news about fake Service Dogs so now I question all Service Dogs!”). But just because you have a Service Dog does not also mean you must play the role of Public Educator. However, if you have the time, it’s important to take even a small step to stand up for your rights.
If you don’t have the verbal ability, time or energy to educate, your best option is to at least carry a a folded copy of the the ADA Requirements for Service Dogs — and leave it with whomever is questioning you. It will help not only clear your path, but also lessen the chances of an access issue for future Service Dog teams. Whether you want to think so or not, you are representing not only yourself, but every Service Dog team to follow.
If you choose to educate, do it the right way
If you choose to educate, try not to “talk down” to the person that you are working with. The individual stopping you is often not a manager, so giving them printed copy of the ADA Requirements for Service Dogs to show to their boss or team leader can assist you in explaining the law and allow them to accurately re-explain the law to their manager if necessary. Always remain calm and professional.
If that fails, consider other factors that may be inhibiting communication. Sometimes a language barrier is the issue. If you can, attempt to find a bilingual person that can bridge the gap. Another patron of the business or another staff member may be able to help. Examine the words you’re using to try to explain the law and your rights. Remember, under the law people have rights, not dogs. If you haven’t yet explained that a Service Dog isn’t a pet and that they have legal status under the law, ensure that is understood before covering the actual facts of the law again.
Do not blame an entire brand, company or organization for the actions of a few
Address each incident on an individual basis. Just as you wouldn’t like someone to judge the entire Service Dog community based on an encounter with one poorly trained Service Dog team, don’t launch an attack against an entire brand, company or organization based on an access challenge with one store or individual. Many brands, companies and organizations have excellent Service Dog policies, but it’s up to each manager to share that information with their team. They may or may not, but you can be certain access challenges occur due to a lack of information. If the manager hasn’t educated their workers, then you have the option to educate them. Feel free to inform the corporate office of a chain of the incident, but be certain you don’t lash out publicly (or on “private” venues like social media) without first trying to solve the problem one-on-one with the people involved. Don’t forget the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.
Document your access challenge
Document everything that transpires by whatever method works best for you. Use your cell phone to video or record the encounter in real time. It may be useful later. The recording or video can provide a look at yourself to show you how you can be a better teacher and help to build your self confidence when handling a high stress situation. If you need to take further action after the fact, having an accurate recording will prevent “he-said-she-said” types of situations.
If you have gotten to the point where the on–site authority (gatekeeper) is still denying you and your Service Dog access, try contacting the the ADA Information Line at 1.800.514.0301 (voice) or 1.800.514.0383 (TTY). ADA Specialists are available on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. or on Thursday from 12:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. (Eastern Time).
The last resort in a Service Dog access challenge is to call the police. The police have special training programs that teach them how to deal with conflicts and denial of rights. The officer or officers should be trained in defusing these highly emotionally charged encounters, informing both parties of Federal, State and Local laws, and enforcing the laws applicable in any given situation.
After all of the in-person work has been done, if no solution has been reached, then Title II that covers State and local governments and Title III that covers the majority of other places that access challenges can crop up. These are the sections of the ADA that specifically cover access rights for individuals with a disability. These sections are likely your next step. Start by reading the Title II Technical Assistance Manual, which is a great resource in understanding what the laws and guidelines for filing suit are, what your rights are and how to proceed with a discrimination complaint.
Service Dog access challenges and disputes rarely progress to the point of the government or lawyers involved. If the situation does escalate to this level, having your canine teammate’s tasks documented is really helpful. Videos of successfully completed tasks, upper level training and Public Access Tests become important and detailed training logs are vital. Your documentation of the situation and the police report can be a great help in the event that escalation goes to this extreme. Also, consider involving a disability advocate, someone that is very knowledgeable about the laws, rules and regulations involved, can be a wise choice. They’re a true asset and can help guide and support you through the process.
If your access challenge was at work or was a hiring discrimination as a result of your Service Dog, it’s best to contact the EEOC or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employment Discrimination in regards to disabilities happens, but many other types happen as well.
The Bottom Line About Access Challenges
Regardless of the exact nature of the dispute or access challenge, above all else, remain polite and professional. If you become angry, the gatekeeper will become angry and will want to help you or work with you even less. Simply explain your rights in a calm, professional manner. Practice educating others about Service Dog laws and access rights whenever possible so that when you encounter challenges, you’re prepared to teach gatekeepers with poise and obvious understanding. More often than not, these situations are usually a resolvable misunderstanding of the laws that pertain to civil rights and Service Dog access.