Learning 'fuzzy' areas of law on service animals

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Though some of the laws covering service animals are a little ambiguous, business owners have a right to ask customers who bring their dogs into stores and restaurants whether they are trained and meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to experts who spoke in Santa Fe last week.

Whether it's a matter of determining the rules for just what constitutes a "service animal" or assessing how much a person can be questioned about their disability, the laws governing service animals are not always well understood, said James Jackson, CEO of Disability Rights New Mexico, and Ellen Prines of the Disability Coalition.

The two recently outlined the do's and don'ts of the 1990 federal legislation.

Jackson said there is considerable "give and take" in the law, but "there are some areas where it is just a little fuzzy" regarding the responsibilities of business owners and those with a service animal. He said a New Mexico law, the New Mexico Service Animal Act, has provisions similar to the federal legislation.

Under the ADA, only dogs and in rare cases miniature horses, may be used as service animals. In addition, they must have been trained to perform specific tasks for the disabled person. Such tasks could include guiding a blind person, steadying a person with mobility problems, picking up items or even alerting handlers to an impending seizure.

Animals considered "comfort" animals, even if it is a dog, that provides emotional or therapeutic support for their handlers, are not provided the law's protections -- and can be barred from the business.

The difference that disqualifies a comfort animal as a service animal, Jackson said, is that they have not been trained to perform a specific task.

"A dog that just helps calm a person ... for better or worse, that does not meet the definition of a service dog," he said.

"Just because your animal is kind of looking out for you does not make it a service animal," he added.

Prines said a trained service dog can accompany its handler into any establishment serving the public, including restaurants and other businesses that normally bar animals.

"If a human would be able to go there, then the service animal can go there," Prines said. That includes areas where food is prepared or eaten.

However, she said, that does not mean that the dog "can just wander around loose." It must be under the control of the handler at all times.

The two also outlined other responsibilities of the handler: The dog must be housebroken, and the animal must not bark repeatedly or interfere with the actions of customers or business staff. Service dogs may also be barred from sitting on chairs or other furniture.

If the dog misbehaves, the handler must remove it from the business if requested, Prines said. However, the person may return without the dog.

Business owners and staff are restricted in what they can ask the handler if there is some doubt as to the dog's purpose. They may ask whether the dog is needed due to a disability but may not inquire as to the nature of the disability. Also, they may ask what task the dog is trained to do.

The business staff cannot, however, ask for proof of the disability or for proof that the dog is trained. Instead, they must accept the handler's assurances, according to the law.

Jackson noted the Americans With Disabilities Act does not require the business to alter its regular practices to accommodate the dog and it may be refused for legitimate safety reasons, but not because of unprovoked fear or allergies.

Prines also noted ADA guidelines for service animals in hotels and medical facilities. Generally, hotels must relax standard pet rules and fees for a service dog, but can charge for any damage caused by the animal. Hospitals must allow service dogs in patient rooms and other areas open to the public, but can exclude the dog from areas where a sterile environment could be compromised.

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