Borrego Sun - Since 1949

VIEWPOINT: Assistance Dogs and the Law


Last updated 6/15/2018 at 3:55pm

You walk into a Borrego Springs restaurant with your dog – wearing no vest or outward signs of an ID – and take a seat. The server approaches and asks, “Is that your pet?” You answer, “No, it’s an Assistance dog.” The server then asks, “What task does he perform for you?” You respond, “He lets me know when my PTSD starts to kick in.”

“Thank you,” says the server, and then asks if you’d like anything to drink before ordering.

This is what SHOULD happen if the business owner and staff know the law. Unfortunately, bad public relations and even litigation can arise when owners and employees of public establishments do not know the State and Federal laws on Assistance Dogs; fines and even jail time await both the ignorant and purposefully non-compliant.

People and their assistance dogs (as opposed to Emotional Comfort dogs) are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California law. An assistance dog falls into one of three categories: Guide dog, Hearing/Alert dog, and Service dog.

We all recognize Guide dogs for the blind; most of us are probably not so familiar with Hearing/Alert dogs; and few of us can discern Service dogs by means of outward appearance only. Assistance dogs can be of any breed or size or age, and they are not required to wear a vest or outward signs of identification. Assistance dogs are defined by law as “individually task-trained medical assistance animals prescribed (by a physician) to mitigate their handler’s physical, sensory, mental or mobility disability.”

A person may lawfully bring one dog for each categorical disability, and there is no limit on the number. If an employee of a business serving the public asks more than the two questions generally in line with the two asked in the first paragraph above, or refuses service, the business is liable for fines between $2,500 (California law) and $55,000 (Federal law for a first offense).

“The local restaurant was empty,” one Borrego resident said, who suffers from the results of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) plus severe neuropathy and balance issues associated with spinal cord injury. The woman – who asked her name to be withheld for confidentiality – stated that she walked into the restaurant wearing her vest and ID tag. A staff member greeted her, saying she had to sit outside with the dog. “It was quite cold outside at the time,” the woman said. “I informed the person, ‘This is a Service dog and I have all the paperwork, including the doctor’s prescription.’”

The server then said to the woman, “That doesn’t look like a service dog to me,” and added, ”Anyone can get a paper that says their dog is a service dog.” The woman did not argue the point further.

“Being judged like that, after going thru months in the hospital and years of rehab for both the TBI and spinal cord injury, is very hurtful. I am very lucky to be alive and I rely heavily on my dog for both physical and emotional support,” the woman said.

The woman’s dog is not a comfort dog, but rather a Service dog – an “Assistance dog” under the law.

The incident is the second similar incident this same woman experienced in two separate Borrego eating establishments in the last year.

Both establishments were contacted. In one case, it was said to be a matter of a “misunderstanding,” and that the restaurant is “dog friendly.”

“We now treat every dog as an assistance dog,” a representative from the establishment commented.

In the other case, the restaurant representative said that if a dog wears a vest, the dog is allowed. If the dog has no vest, and the person has no assistance dog ID, the owner and dog will be asked to leave.

Assistance dog owners do not, by law, as noted previously, have to show written proof. However, the law works both ways: If someone shows up with a “pet” and lies about it being an “Assistance” dog, they too can be punished – for their prevarication – by up to six months in jail and/or fined $1,000 under California law. The business owner/staffer can make a determination based on judgment and experience, but if wrong, he/she may suffer the consequences.

For a business establishment, the best means to avoid what could be expensive litigation, not to mention bad publicity, is to know by heart the two questions allowed. And perhaps add a sign near the entrance (or a notice on the menu) saying, for instance: “If you see a dog in this establishment, it has been determined to be an Assistance dog.”

For the Assistance dog owner, a clear identification on the dog, although not required by law, can serve to relieve any potential awkwardness that comes with such a situation. In addition, an immediate display of an ID card (also not required) certainly can’t hurt in clarifying the situation at an early stage.

You walk into a Borrego restaurant with your Service dog – wearing a Service dog identification vest – and take a seat. The server approaches, and out of courtesy and to save suspicion, you flash a small ID card. But before you can say anything, your dog starts to bark uncontrollably, disturbing other customers, and then pees on the floor next to your chair. You apologize profusely.

The server asks politely that you clean up the mess, and you do, and then asks that you take your validly registered Service dog and leave the premises. That’s also allowed - by law.

The Borrego community takes great pride in its inclusiveness, as well as a common desire for all who either live here or come here as visitors to enjoy the varied retail businesses and eating establishments. When folks know the rules for Assistance dogs in public establishments, we can help keep it that way.

More information on the subject can be found by Googling “Assistance dogs” or “ADA Requirements: Service Animals.”

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