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About Service Animals


February 3, 2017

Lisa Bailey

Recently there have been multiple occasions when a local couple have been turned away from area businesses based on the presence of their service dog/s. Flora Vista residents Michael and Peggy McMurry reported being asked to leave several businesses, including a medical facility while seeking urgent medical attention for their son, a stroke victim with special needs. Michael is a heart failure patient awaiting a transplant. His service dog, Annabelle, is trained to recognize symptoms of, and concerns related to his cardiac condition, prompting Michael to make accommodations.

That is essentially the definition of a service animal. It needs to be able to recognize signs or behaviors related to a medical condition (disability), and have the capability to make prompts to prevent or address the potential outcome (interventions). This means that the service animal cannot simply be a companion, even if that companionship is deemed therapeutic by the pet's owner. Service Animals and therapy animals are not the same. According to local dog trainer Kelly Everett, she only trains a service animal if there is a medical need. Then, she trains the dog for the owner's specific needs. She is not an advocate of purchasing Service Dogs trained in another locale with and by other people. Kelly feels that the most effective training takes place with the owner and pet navigating the training together. "The dog becomes a part of owner," she said. In addition to recognizing and assisting in medical conditions, service dogs can be trained to help their owners with mobility, to alert others when their owner has fallen or is having a seizure, and much more. While the difference between a therapy pet and a Service Animal may seem subjective, reading the American Disability Act (ADA) site's Frequently Asked Questions (https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html), the rules are very clear and concise!

ADA rules state that true service animals, cannot be denied access to any public place, including establishments selling or serving food, or medical facilities. In the rare instances that the service animal truly cannot be accommodated and/or interferes with medical care, the patient, or a friend or family member can make arrangements for the care or transport of the service animal until the patient and the service animal can be reunited, which is ideal for the patient.

There appears to be a symbiotic relationship between service animals and their owners. The animals, primarily dogs, are specifically trained to the needs of the owner. They learn to anticipate their owner's needs, recognizing the signs of the owner's conditions, even before the owners are aware. Honestly, I do not understand how but I think we have all heard stories about how animals sense things that humans cannot, or at least for the most part, do not. In Michael's case, Annabelle knows when Michael is over exerting himself and slows her pace, pushing on Michael's legs. Annabelle has also developed a sense of when Michael's breathing becomes irregular during the night, and wakes him up.

In speaking with Peggy and Michael and Kelly it is easy to recognize their passion. "Service Animals enable people with medical disabilities to do the things that many of us take for granted," Kelly said. Those things could be something as simple as going to the grocery store, staying up later than a spouse to watch TV, or taking a class at the local college. However, the reason behind why people cannot do the things they really want is not any of our business. Again, according to ADA rules, establishments are not allowed to ask for documentation. This makes sense, since apparently there truly is no such thing.

Herein may lie much of the problem. Since there is no certification for Service Dogs, and, truth be known, anyone can get on the internet and order items indicating their animal is a service pet, it seems likely that people could be abusing the ADA protection. I suspect that in light of more people recognizing the value of service animals that there will be more regulations implemented. The one thing we all need to be aware of and remember is that many disabilities are not apparent. You may have seen the bumper sticker, "You Can Have My Parking Space, But Take My Disability With It!" (www.InvisibleDisabilities.org).

There was a time when animals were commonplace in public places, and animals co-mingled with patrons at open air venues. And, there still are those places, in our region, our country and our world. I believe that the development of rules limiting animals in traditional business establishments was initially put in place in an attempt to reduce disease and promote safety for the general population. It will be interesting to see, with what we know now and with the increase in Service Animals, how those rules will evolve. One thing seems clear, Service Animals are an effective piece of many people's medical treatment.

In Michael's case it seems likely that some of the opposition he may have come up against is due to the fact that his service dogs are Rottweilers. However, this too is something that the ADA clarifies, that any breed of dog can be a Service Animal. And, after spending time with Service Animal Annabelle, and Service Animal in training Keena, I had a hard time associating them with the stereotypical Rottweiler reputation.

So, it seems that, as a community, we could all benefit from further education about this topic. As citizens sharing space with Service Animals and business owners we need to recognize that while we have rights too, unless a Service Animal is being disruptive or aggressive, the owner has the right to have the animal with him/her at all times.


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