Law is flexible on service animals

Letter to the editor

Posted: Tuesday, February 07, 2006

We at Southeast Alaska Independent Living are writing in response to Luke Adams' Feb. 2 letter regarding service dogs. His letter said persons who want to carry their pets into stores and restaurants should not designate them as service animals to get around the rules.

Many people think a small black poodle or Chihuahua couldn't be a service animal. But in fact, any animal from a small horse to a monkey may be a service animal to a person with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For example, people who experience hearing loss or epilepsy may use smaller dogs to alert them to noise or a potential seizure. Because small dogs can easily be stepped on in a crowded area, some owners choose to hold their service animals in their laps.

Indeed, people may abuse the system here in Juneau, claiming their pet is a service animal when there is no need. However, the assumption that it is a "little game of dress-up" may be incorrect, since some persons experiencing emotional disabilities may need a service animal to fetch medicine or go for help during a crisis. However, the ADA does not recognize companion animals as service animals unless they are trained to perform a specific task.

It may surprise some, including Mr. Adams, that anyone can purchase patches and vests. Congress intentionally left gray areas in the ADA regarding service animals, not requiring any certification, since some people train their own service animals. At this time, there are no service animal training programs in Southeast Alaska, leaving people on their own to find patches, vests and training systems.

This leaves businesses in a tight spot since they cannot legally request documentation that a service animal is needed or what disabilities exist, but they may ask what physical task the animal provides. Businesses must allow service animals of all kinds unless they are misbehaving. Service animal owners do have a responsibility to keep their animals clean, groomed and trained.

Finally, many disabilities are not immediately noticeable and often termed "invisible disabilities." Before judging the legitimacy of any service animal, it is advisable to get to know the person with a disability and ask about the service animal. Most persons with disabilities are open to answering politely worded questions about assistive technology or animals.

Kevin Gadsey

Southeast Alaska Independent Living


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