Just what is a service animal and where are they allowed to go? That’s a question that law enforcement officers and business owners ask from time to time. It’s important for them to know the correct answer because not knowing can land them afoul of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
As Press staff writer Nathan Baker reported last week, even federal officials can have problems sorting out the intricacies of the law.
Jan English, a patient at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, told Baker she was unfairly treated by the hospital staff when they tried to send her service dog to an animal shelter while she was being treated for broken bones.
The Knoxville resident said both security and medical personnel at the VA hospital attempted to remove her service dog, Chayna, until she was finally sent from that facility on May 26 to a hotel, where a caregiver is tending to English around the clock.
The ADA rules were updated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010 to define service animals as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, specifically naming blindness, deafness and PTSD, among others. The ADA says service animals should basically be allowed any place where the public is normally allowed to enter, including patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias or examination rooms in a hospital, but excluding surgery rooms or burn centers and other areas where maintaining a sterile environment could be crucial to a patient’s survival.
When the function of a service animal is not immediately apparent, the ADA rules allow the staff of the public facility to ask just two questions: Whether the dog is a service animal because of a disability and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform.
Staffers can’t, however, ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the tasks.
Such a situation came up in Jonesborough earlier this year when sheriff’s deputies attempted to prevent a man from entering the Washington County Justice Center with his service animal.
Judy Fowler-Argo, public affairs officer for the VA at Mountain Home, said it is the hospital’s policy for service animals to remain under the control of their owners at all times and not be aggressive, noisy or messy.
The ADA provisions do allow for the removal of service animals if the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if the dog is not housebroken.
“We frequently get animals that might have a service dog vest on, but not all the animals who come in here are trained service animals,” Fowler-Argo said. “You can go to Walmart or a pet store and buy one of those vests. The difference between that and a service animal is the training.”
We’d like to hear from you. Do you think the current definition of a service animal is sufficient? Should the rules governing the use of service dogs be made clearer?
Send your comments to Mailbag, P.O. Box 1717, Johnson City, TN 37605-1717, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, telephone number and address for verification.