Play Dates are Fun for Assistance Dogs Too!

August 6, 2011 · Posted in Doggie Healthcare · Comment 
Whistle and Bueno

I have always felt guilty that my assistance dogs have been the sole dog in our house with the exception of the times when there has been an overlap with my retired assistance dog. However during those times, my retired dogs have been older, physically challenged and uninterested in playing with a younger dog.

For the past five months now, Whistle has been the sole dog in our house after my retired dog, Morgan, passed away. Whistle is one of those dogs who is full of energy. After working with me all day, Whistle still demands to go for a long walk around the neighborhood. When we return, Whistle grabs his toy and insists that my husband, Franz, and I play retrieving games with his favorite toys until bedtime.

I really felt Whistle needed some canine interaction and I was considering taking him to the local dog park so he could have some social engagement with other dogs. However, I had heard from acquaintances of their experiences that made me reluctant to do so.

Seeking a more controlled situation, I asked a friend I know and trust who has a rescue dog similar to Whistle’s age and athletic drive to bring him over to my house for a play date with Whistle.
She brought him over to meet Whistle one Saturday afternoon. At first, they seemed a little awkward and too energetic, but with a little supervision, they became fast friends. Now the two look forward to seeing each other and they both get to run and play in a safe environment.
We decided to schedule some regular play dates so Whistle and his new friend, Bueno, could spend more time together. Now, when Bueno’s mom and dad want to travel or go on an outing, Bueno comes over for a visit.

It’s so nice to see Whistle run around and chase Bueno like an average dog. And, it is amazing to see Bueno, who has had no formal obedience training, try to sit by my wheelchair and act like my assistance dog!

It’s a match made in heaven for everyone involved!

U.S. Department of Justice Rules on Assistance Dogs to Become Stricter March 15, 2011

March 11, 2011 · Posted in Americans with Disabilities Act, Assistance Dogs · 32 Comments 
legislative session

James J. McDonald, Jr., managing partner, Fisher & Phillips, LLP wrote a good summary about the March 15 changes impacting U.S. assistance dogs. His summary is listed below. It’s long but I found it to be very informative.

Regulations issued in 1991 following the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act required that public accommodations (which include restaurants, hotels, retail establishments, theaters, and concert halls) modify their policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability.

Essentially this means that service animals accompanying persons with disabilities have to be admitted to establishments with policies that otherwise exclude pets or other animals.

When the ADA was enacted, most service animals were “seeing-eye” dogs that assisted blind or sight-impaired persons. In most cases, these dogs were highly trained and, because of their extensive training, were not likely to create a nuisance or a sanitary problem.

Over time, however, a variety of species came to be characterized by their owners as service animals, including pigs, horses, monkeys, snakes, lizards, birds, and rodents. Also, dogs and other animals that merely provide emotional comfort to their owners also have been characterized as service animals.

This proliferation of creatures claimed to be service animals has posed obvious problems for many restaurants and hotels in terms of safety, sanitation, and disturbance of other guests. Until now, however, proprietors were largely powerless to bar these types of animals from their establishments.

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued new regulations effective March 15, 2011, however, which will substantially limit the types of animals that will qualify as service animals under the ADA.

First, only dogs (and miniature horses in some cases) will qualify as service animals under the new regulations. “Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained,” will not qualify. The new regulations, however, do not place limits on breed or size of dog.

Second, the dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” The regulations go on to state that the work or tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability. Examples of work or tasks set forth in the regulations include:

a. Assisting sight-impaired persons with navigation or other tasks
b. Alerting hearing-impaired persons to the presence of people or sounds
c. Providing nonviolent protection or rescue work
d. Pulling a wheelchair
e. Assisting an individual during a seizure
f. Alerting an individual to the presence of allergens
g. Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone
h. Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility impairments
i. Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors

Under the new regulations, the mere “provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship does not constitute work or tasks” for purposes of the definition of service animal. Thus, animals that provide only comfort or emotional support for their owners will no longer qualify as service animals.

For a dog to qualify as a service animal to an owner with a psychiatric disability under the new regulations, the dog must be trained to perform specific work or tasks. Examples given in the guidance accompanying the new regulations of tasks performed by psychiatric service animals include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches for persons with posttraumatic stress disorder, interrupting self-mutilation, and removing disoriented individuals from dangerous situations.

The guidance also states that a dog that is used to “ground” a person with a psychiatric disorder will qualify as a service animal if the dog has been trained: (1) to recognize that a person is about to have a psychiatric episode and (2) to respond by nudging, barking or removing the person to a safe location until the episode subsides.

The new regulations additionally clarify that “attack dogs” trained to provide aggressive protection of their owners will not qualify as service animals. The crime-deterrent effect of a dog’s presence, by itself, does not qualify as “work” or “tasks” for purposes of the service animal definition.

The new regulations also formalize prior Justice Department technical assistance addressing the use and handling of service animals. The regulations provide that a public accommodation may ask an individual with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises if the animal is not housebroken, or if the animal is out of control, and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it. (Ordinarily, the regulations state, a service animal shall have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless the person with a disability is unable to use a harness, leash, or tether or the use of such a device would interfere with the animal’s ability to perform its work or tasks.) If a service animal is removed for any of these reasons, the person with a disability must still be permitted to access the establishment’s goods, services, or accommodations without the animal being present.

The regulations also confirm that a public accommodation is not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal.

The regulations provide that a public accommodation may not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability, but that it generally may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal; it may ask: (1) if the animal is required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. These inquiries may not be made, however, when it is readily apparent that the animal is a service animal, such as where a guide dog is guiding a blind person or a dog is pulling a wheelchair.

Furthermore, a public accommodation may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Nor may a public accommodation require a person with a disability to pay a surcharge for a service animal, even if it applies such a surcharge for pets.

These regulations will not apply to landlords or airlines, which are governed by the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, respectively. It is also not yet clear that these regulations, and particularly the definition of a service animal, will be applied by courts to cases brought under Title I of the ADA which covers employment.

A good argument may be made, based on existing case law, that a stricter standard would apply under Title I. Unlike under Title III, where a dog must be allowed onto the premises if it qualifies as a service animal and does not leave a mess or cause a serious disturbance, an employee under Title I of the ADA is entitled only to such accommodations as are necessary to enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job.

An employee, therefore, will likely need to show that the presence of a service animal is needed for the employee to be able to perform his or her essential job duties. An animal that provides only comfort or emotional support to an employee, but that is not needed in order for the employee to be able to work, will not likely qualify as a reasonable accommodation under Title I of the ADA.

These new regulations give long-needed clarity to hotels, restaurants, retailers, and other public accommodations regarding which animals must be allowed as service animals, and under what circumstances. No longer will these establishments need to allow patrons to bring exotic, dangerous, disruptive, or unsanitary animals with them as purported “service animals.”

James J. McDonald, Jr. is managing partner of the Irvine, Calif. office of the national labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP (www.laborlawyers.com).

Pseudo-Assistance Dogs Jeopardize Hard-won Rights for Real Service Animals

February 28, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs · 12 Comments 
no dogs allowed

I saw a news item the other day in the New York Post about Hollywood celebrity Candy Spelling (mother of Tori and widow of TV producer Aaron) bringing her dog, Madison, a Wheaton Terrier, into a New York restaurant wearing a “service dog jacket.”

Is this dog really trained and certified as some type of assistance dog? I really have no way of knowing, but hearing about this incident just reminded me of how more and more I’ve been hearing about people trying to pass off pets as assistance animals.

I’ve even had friends ask to borrow my assistance dog’s backpack so they might be able to bring their pet to some event or into some business. I’ve always said, “Sorry, but no.”

It’s an image and reputation thing. If your pet has not gone through the rigorous training that “real” assistance dogs must obtain, he or she probably won’t be able to behave well enough in public. It’s hard for us who really rely on our assistance animals to condone your desire to have your pet with you everywhere. No matter how much you love them, you really don’t require them the way we do.

For over 75 years, Assistance Dogs have worked successfully in public and won the public’s acceptance by achieving high behavioral and training standards, which set them apart from pets and other animals. Assistance Dogs International, Inc. publishes minimum standards for assistance dog training programs to ensure the highest level of quality in assistance dog performance.

An ill-behaved “pretend” assistance dog gives all the real ones a bad reputation. If there are any incidents, it just makes people feel justified in denying access to a dog in the future, whether it is truly a trained assistance animal or not.

But it’s hard to know which dogs are “real” and which aren’t. If a business owner or someone else suspects that a dog is not really an assistance dog, but just a pet, what are they to do?

Not all people with disabilities are easy to visually identify. It’s not always people with guide dogs out there or those of us in wheelchairs these days. Think about the military veterans with PTSD and their dogs. Or those with hearing loss or autism. Can you tell if the man, woman or child with the dog is truly disabled and if their dog is truly an assistance animal?

What if a business owner confronts someone and they’re wrong? Or what if the customer makes a scene, even if their dog is really a pampered pet. Is the customer always right, no matter what?

People can train their own dogs, too, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, so who certifies or decides which assistance dogs are genuine and which are fakes?

Here’s my fear: Passing your pet off as an assistance dog not only gives the real ones a bad image, it might jeopardize the hard-won rights of people who really need assistance dogs. If there are enough bad incidents, will someone try to enact legislation changing the access laws?

I remember back in the early 90s, three years after the ADA was enacted, when I got my first service dog, Ramona. I was stopped a lot and told things like, “You can’t bring that dog in here.” Nowadays I feel more confident traveling in my state and across the US, but I don’t want things to revert back due to the issue of pseudo assistance dogs.

This is a very real issue that I feel really needs to be discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s an article on the topic that just came out on Disability Scoop and another article from the Wall St. Journal. We discuss assistance dog standards in our book Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook.

Visiting Universal Studios in Orlando with a Service Dog

January 24, 2011 · Posted in Public Interaction, Service Dogs Travel · 6 Comments 
Whistle at Universal Studios

My husband, Franz, service dog, Whistle and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Orlando, Florida for work. While we were there we took some time to visit Universal Studios. We are big Harry Potter fans and we were interested in visiting the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando.

As a wheelchair user with a service dog, I was a little nervous about accessibility. Boy, were my concerns quickly put to rest. Prior to our trip, I read a helpful article written by Kleo King, the senior vice-president of ABLE to Travel and Accessibility Services that was published in the November/December 2010 issue of Action the magazine of the United Spinal Association entitled “Accessible Wizardry in Orlando”.

The article discussed accessibility for the various rides as well as the streets and shops in Hogsmead. However, it did not mention accessibility regarding service animals.

As we entered the Universal grounds, we made a bee line to the back of the park to the Harry Potter attraction. Like two anxious children, Franz and I entered the gates of Harry’s wizarding world with awe and excitement. We followed the smooth cobblestones toward the Hogwarts castle.

To our amazement, we entered the castle and were quickly greeted by a young man dressed as a Hogwarts student. He led us through the winding corridors toward the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. This is the crown jewel of the Harry Potter attraction. As we wound our way through the castle, he highlighted some of the main attractions which included Dumbledore’s office, the infamous Sorting Hat, and a brief encounter with Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

It was truly magical. Our guide took us to a separate area where I could board the Forbidden Journey ride. It was a private area where an attendant, also dressed as a Hogwarts student, summoned a car that would whisk us away into Harry’s world where we would come face to face with a dragon!

As the car was summoned, another friendly Hogwarts student greeted me with two options. Would I like to place Whistle in a crate/kennel while Franz and I rode the Forbidden Journey? Or, if I did not want to place him in a crate, would I prefer for him to hold Whistle’s leash?

I chose the crate. He opened a door and in a small room there was a large, wire crate. Whistle looked practically giddy when he caught a peek of the crate. Before I knew it, Whistle was laid out for a much deserved nap and Franz and I were off on a new adventure.

Although it always makes me a little nervous to be separated from Whistle, I gave a sigh of relief knowing that he would have a few minutes of peace and quiet while Franz and I went to rescue Harry, Hermione and Ron from the dragon.

My next delight came when it was time to actually board the ride. To my joyous surprise, I had complete privacy while I investigated the car and explored how I would safely transfer from my wheelchair into the ride. With the privacy we were provided, I was easily able to transfer into the ride and Franz was able to safely park my wheelchair in an area close to Whistle’s crate.

As we were safely secured into the ride, the music started, the wind began to blow and we were whisked away into the world of Harry Potter. It was pure enchantment. For five brief minutes, I felt like I was riding a broomstick on the Hogwarts grounds. As a wheelchair user for almost 40 years, I love any opportunity that gets me out of my wheelchair and flying through the air at fast speeds. It was utter bliss.

And, the icing on the cake was that Whistle was content being snugly secured in his crate under the watchful eye of the Universal attendant. Throughout the day, we visited and revisited Hogwarts along with other attractions. Franz and I rode the Forbidden Journey three more times that day and we even rode the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. Whistle used each opportunity to get a few minutes of sleep before he went on to his next adventure.

I was so impressed that the Universal staff had given so much thought to their guests’ individual needs. They graciously welcomed us at each ride and offered Whistle the opportunity to stay with an attendant or be placed in a crate. Now I know that not every service dog and their handler will want to utilize a crate, but for me and Whistle, it was a wonderfully safe and secure option.

And knowing that Whistle was safe and happy, made our experience at Universal Studios that much more enjoyable. We are looking forward to more magical visits to Universal Studios and Harry Potter’s Wizarding World.

Fairfax School Leaders Deny Student Access with Service Dog

January 5, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs · 2 Comments 

Fairfax Schools Deny Service Dog

Recently, an article in the American Association of People with Disabilities Newsletter (January 3, 2011) about a Northern Virginia elementary school denying 12-year-old Andrew Stevens the right to bring his seizure alert assistance dog to school caught my attention.

The newsletter gave a link to this article written by FOX 5 Reporter Stacey Cohan which reported that Andrew and his family waited two years and raised $20,000 to get his assistance dog. The family had hoped that Andrew’s assistance dog would provide an array of services to him, including reconnecting Andrew with his peers. Instead, Andrew had been denied the use of his assistance dog at school. The school had created yet another barrier for this young man and his family to overcome.

I do not know all of the details surrounding this situation. However, as an individual with a disability who grew up as a wheelchair user, it is all too familiar. It so disheartening to hear Andrew’s story and to imagine the struggles he and his family are enduring on a daily basis.

If you grew up with a disability then you know the endless number of barriers that can be placed in our way as we strive to gain an education and begin to make our way in this world. Being fortunate enough to receive an assistance dog can be a great opportunity to relieve some of the daily pitfalls and struggles.

Public schools are supposed to be a resource and a place of security for all children and youth. It is a place where our most valuable asset, our youth, learn valuable life lessons and gather the skills necessary to enable them to move forward into their adult lives. It is so sad to think that this elementary school is playing such a negative role in this young man’s life. Unfortunately, their bureaucratic actions are reinforcing inequality, vulnerability, and downright unfair treatment of children with disabilities.

What lifelong lesson are these public officials teaching Andrew, his family and perhaps more sadly, his peers? I hope Andrew’s parents have the stamina necessary to finish this fight. I hope they will be able to teach the school district administrators that they cannot discriminate against a student with a disability who needs an assistance dog. And more importantly, I hope it will teach Andrew that he is a valued as much as every other student at his school and he has the right to have his assistance dog by his side.

We must unite to dispel the myth that children with disabilities should not have the services and equipment necessary to make them as independent as they choose to be. We must clearly communicate that this school district’s staff response is not acceptable and there are consequences in Virginia and the United States for this archaic, discriminatory behavior.

I just found out that after Andrew and his mother appeared on the TODAY show yesterday (January 4), the school officials decided to let Andrew have his service dog with him at school, at least on a trial basis. My concern is that three to six weeks may not be long enough, and that they should allow more time for a fair test.

Andrew’s story has received nationwide media attention. My hope is that it will help educate more people about the benefits of highly trained service dogs.

Earlier Posts»