Knox woman says VA threatened to impound service dog

Nathan Baker • May 27, 2014 at 10:02 PM

A Knoxville woman said she was unfairly treated by hospital staff at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home who tried to send her service dog to a nearby animal shelter while she received treatment for broken bones.

Jan English was transported to the VA hospital May 16 with a broken femur and foot. She said security and medical personnel at the hospital repeatedly attempted to remove her service dog, Chayna, until Monday, when English was sent from the VA to a hotel, where a caregiver is tending to her round the clock.

“It was constant harassment, from time I got out of the ambulance, the wanna-be cop there kept saying he was making arrangements to put Chayna in the pound,” English said Tuesday. “Then one day, one of the guys that walked her a couple of times came back without her and said they were calling the pound.”

Judy Fowler-Argo, public affairs officer for the VA Medical Center, said she couldn’t speak about specific cases, citing patient confidentiality, but said it’s the hospital’s policy that service animals must remain in control of their owners at all times and should not be aggressive, noisy or messy.

“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,” she said. “You can go to Wal-Mart or a pet store and buy one of those vests. The difference between that and a service animal is the training.”

Rules governing service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, updated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010, 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 states that service animals should generally be allowed anywhere 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, where maintaining a sterile environment could be crucial to a patient’s survival.

According to the rules, when the function of a service animal is not immediately apparent, staff of the public facility may ask only 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.

Staff can’t 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 task, guidelines learned by Washington County Justice Center officers this year when they attempted to bar a man from entering the building with his service animal.

The ADA provisions do give two reasons for asking the animal’s owner to remove it: 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.

Fowler-Argo said staff at Mountain Home don’t usually question a service animal’s status unless the animal exhibits aggressive behavior.

“Usually, trained service dogs don’t act out,” she said. “If we have someone here, and their dog is aggressive, chances are it’s not a true service dog, but a pet.”

English, Chayna’s owner, said her dog was trained by an established military veteran trainer in the Knoxville area to work with people in wheelchairs.

English has been the German Rottweiler’s handler for more than three years, and said the pair has been welcomed into the Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville on multiple occasions.

When she refused to allow Chayna to be taken to an animal shelter, the VA moved them both to a hotel and provided a caregiver.

English said she’s now 90 miles from home, only has a few changes of clothes and can’t afford to buy food every day during her recovery.

“They say I refused treatment,” she said. “I say they refused to treat someone with a service dog, which is illegal.”

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