My First Serious Access Challenge

This past Tuesday was the first time I experienced an access challenge that went beyond something along the lines of, “We don’t allow dogs in here.” “He’s a service dog.” “Oh, ok.” Or, “Is that a service dog?” “Yes.” “Ok, just checking.”

I was pressed to present “paperwork,” for my dog. Here’s a video of how things transpired with the second employee who approached me.

(Video description on YouTube: Before recording this, I had an initial interaction with a different employee, who insisted I present papers/documentation for my service dog. After quickly asserting my rights with her, she opted to have me talk to someone else, who I was told would be a manager.

This video reflects the entirety of my interaction with the second and final employee who I dealt with.)

My biggest Achilles Heel in this situation was the degree to which I was caught off guard. I’m lucky in that I’ve become accustomed to a partnership devoid of experiences like this one. Business employees rarely give me a second glance- at least not a scrutinizing one- when I enter with Bradley. So, when I was immediately approached in a somewhat hostile manner, being commanded to present documentation that was not legally required of me to either possess or present, I was very taken aback. I’ve experienced a myriad of access challenges, vicariously, through my friends in the service dog community, but it’s entirely different to experience it first hand. This was an invaluable learning experience just as much for me as it was for the employees to whom I asserted my rights and offered an education of theirs.

I do worry how much differently this experience would have been, had I not been prepared with the relevant educational resources about the applicable laws. Of course, I would have continued my effort to remain calm, well spoken and assertive, without compromising any of my rights or responsibilities as a representative of the service dog community. But I’m not sure that, in the absence of printed out educational material, the employees would have been as receptive to what I would have had to say.

This experience validated my position on the use of ID cards for service dogs, whether they’re from scam registries, fake certification companies or even the presentation of a legitimate certification ID for the purpose of gaining access to a place of public accommodation, during a public access dispute. Whoever was there with a dog, legitimate service dog or not, had presented something of that nature, which further cemented the impression in the eyes of management at that business that such documentation is required of service dog handlers. In an effort to make things easier for herself, that person directly affected how much more difficult things were made for me. I have no one to thank but myself, for my preparedness to deal with the ramifications of her decision.

The Rift Between the Law and Public Perception

Bradley sits, focused.  Taken back when he was training at about 8 months old.

Bradley sits, focused. Taken back when he was training at about 8 months old.

The purpose of this entry is neither to criticize an individual’s personal choice, nor is to claim that one way of handling this issue is better than the other.  It is simply to summarize an issue that affects everyone within the service dog community, so that those who are less aware of it may better understand.  It has been a perpetual cause for debate and almost everyone I’ve talked to has something to say on the matter.

Just as there is conflict among Americans over the balance (or imbalance) between human rights and civil liberties, there is a similar debate among service dog handlers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as state laws provide public access rights to disabled service dog handlers.  A common misconception is that the dog itself has access rights.  In fact, it is the disabled human who possesses the right to be allowed access to public places, accompanied by a service dog who specifically mitigates that individual’s disability.  The service dog team must be allowed access to any business that services the general public and cannot be denied unless the dog is aggressive, destructive or significantly alters the nature of the business by being disruptive.

In the United States there is no single, recognized certification, registration or form of identification required of service dogs.  However, that same absence of a standardized system that gives owner trainers broader latitude is also a cause for confusion.  It’s not legally required to have a program trained dog, wearing a bright vest that says, “Service Dog”, with an identification badge around his neck and documentation of registration with a service dog organization in the vest pocket, available to anyone who requests proof.  That doesn’t mean that a lot of people don’t expect it.  Therefore, service dog handlers face a perplexing dilemma: Assert the rights given to them by the law or compromise in the interest of avoiding confrontation?

Some individuals would rather conform to the general public’s expectations than risk potentially frequent and stressful access challenges.  Others are ready and willing to educate every uninformed business owner who refuses to let them enter, for as long as it takes until their rights are no longer being infringed upon.  There are pros and cons to both positions, which is why it presents such a dilemma.

The first extreme is the service dog handler who is completely unprepared to engage in confrontation.  This person may outfit their dog in a labeled service dog vest and photo ID badge, carry proof of the dog’s service training certification, as well as proof of disability.  This person is happy to produce whatever documentation or demonstration of the dog’s skills to anyone who asks, so that they can eventually go about their business without the risk of being challenged.  Such an individual will go above and beyond what the law requires of service dog handlers, which some others think is a bad thing.

The most prominent reason why some service dog handlers chastise those who make such compromises is because they think compliance on the part of one service dog team means that business owners will expect the same compliance from teams to come. Future teams may not be as heavily equipped with documentation and identification, because it’s not legally required of them.  However, they still may face the challenge of convincing the business owner that these things are not necessary.  The business owner may think that since one team had documentation, everyone else will.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous companies are becoming more common, taking advantage of those who desire an easy way out of public access challenges.  They provide official looking ID badges, certificates and registration documents.  These companies have no protocol for determining the authenticity of a service dog team so they can do service dog teams in general a disservice.  “Fakers” can simply purchase these things to appear legitimate, taking advantage of naive business owners and leaving the general public with an inaccurate, negative association with service dogs.

There are, however, reputable organizations that offer certification to service dogs.  These groups establish high standards of training and dogs must undergo rigorous testing to receive certification under that particular organization.  While it isn’t legally required for service dogs to be certified, some individuals choose to pursue certification for their own peace of mind.  Others choose to go this route so they have something to fall back on in the event that they experience a serious challenge; possibly involving court.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are plenty of service dog handlers who simply cannot take the pressure of an access challenge, for one reason or another.  Some may need a service dog because thy have a debilitating anxiety disorder and a verbal confrontation certainly poses the potential for heightened anxiety.  There are also people who just don’t have the patience, confidence or communication skills to deal with a public access challenge.  It could be quite unfair to hold this against them.

The second extreme is the individual who relishes the opportunity to educate others and assert the rights of a service dog handler.  This person wants to be an advocate for all service dog teams and is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the next team to come will not face the same access challenge that he or she did.  Sometimes this means working their way up the chain of command to speak with supervisors, managers, business owners or whoever is in charge.  It unsuccessful, it could also mean getting the police involved and filing a complaint with the Department of Justice.  Such an endeavor necessitates almost infinite patience and determination.  Not everyone possesses these qualities.

It’s an unfortunate reality that most people with disabilities will experience discrimination in one way or another, at some point in their lives.  Service dog teams aren’t immune to this.  While public awareness continues to rise, the vast majority of the general public is not adequately educated about the role that service dogs play in society.  Handlers must expect and be prepared for public access challenges at some point, because it’s bound to happen to everyone at least once.  Handlers must comply with what the law requires of them and if they can educate others a little along the way, that’s great.  Those who are willing and capable of taking the time to politely enlighten the general public should take steps to do so.  Otherwise, it’s best for an individual who wants to avoid confrontation, to at least explain that their actions don’t reflect what is legally required of them and that other service dog teams shouldn’t be expected to do the same.

Completely aside from whatever the laws in your state require of you in terms of documentation, equipment or identification, one thing a service dog handler should never leave the house without is a copy of the ADA laws, state laws and the contact information for the department of justice.  There are several websites that sell business card size cards with that information that can be distributed as needed.  You can also make your own.  You may also wish to carry a copy of the ADA’s  Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business.

As more people become aware of the laws regarding service dogs, the rift between the law and the public’s expectations of what validates a service dog team will begin to close.