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Service Dogs

by Lucien C. Gwin III


I was vacationing in Florida this July and went into a Publix grocery store to buy groceries. As I wandered through the store, I started noticing patrons with leashed dogs. At one point, there were five different dogs, representing a variety of breeds, within a fifty-foot area.


I was aware of people needing dogs for conditions like blindness, autism, epilepsy, and the like; but all of these dog owners looked healthy to me. A couple of them even looked younger than I am.


When I got back to my condo and told my father what I had seen, he told me that the definition of service dogs has expanded under federal law. So, I thought it would be interesting to research this subject and determine what a service dog is, who can own one, where a person can take one, and what kind of certification is actually needed.


The short answer, much to my amazement, is that any dog, regardless of breed, can be a service dog. Anyone with virtually any limitation connected to a major life activity can have his or her dog certified to be in public places.


There are three federal acts that cover this expanded activity in dog ownership. They are the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers the ability to take a dog into public places; the Fair Housing Act, which involves most rental facilities (apartments); and the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs dogs on airplanes. It is also interesting to note that only dogs and no other animals can qualify as a service animal under any of these three acts.


There are two “classes” of certifications for which a dog can be registered. First, there is a “Certified Service Dog,” defined as an animal that is individually trained to do work or to perform tasks for a person with a real disability. A real disability is that disability in a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. A major life activity is defined as seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, and communicating.


By way of example, a mental impairment that would qualify someone for a service dog is mental retardation, a physiological disorder, organic brain syndrome, learning disability, etc. A physical impairment is any physiological disorder (blindness or deafness), any cosmetic disfigurement, or any anatomical loss (missing limbs). For these issues, a person may apply for a service-dog permit, which basically enables that person to go anywhere with his dog, regardless of whether or not a facility allows pets inside.


Upon certification, a service dog is allowed to go into hotels, restaurants, office buildings, theaters, any public facilities including state and federal facilities (courthouses), airplanes, parks, schools, gyms, libraries, etc. The one caveat is that the service dog must be under control and show no form of aggression. If the dog displays any such behavior, the owner and the service dog can be asked to leave the locale. Facility personnel also may ask to see the service-dog certification although they cannot ask what a person’s impairment is. In addition, a person does not need a doctor’s certificate to be able to bring a service dog into a facility.


The second class of certification for a service dog is called “Emotional Support Dog Certification.” Here is where the lines get fuzzy. These dogs are used by people who suffer anxiety (severe), depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, PTSD, and other emotionally-based diagnosed disorders. The purpose of an emotional support dog is to provide comfort and stability for its master. However, a public facility may ask for a doctor’s certificate showing that the dog owner has such a disorder as described above. Most places however do not ask for this.


Getting this certification entails nothing more than going online and applying. A person must have the certification with him when taking his dog to any public place. Most people whom I noticed with dogs in the Publix grocery store had the certification visibly attached to their dogs’ collars. Again, an emotional support dog can be any breed and does not have to undergo any special training.


My Take:


Getting service-dog certification seems to be a current fad. It is amazing, however, how dogs can raise the quality of one’s life, especially a person with impairments and limitations. I view these laws as good although I am sure some people out there bend the rules on this privilege. In fact, I may know one or two of those people out there that don’t seem as “impaired” as their dog certification claims, but I will keep that to myself.

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