Hope for Disabilities

Fulfilling unmet needs in the disability community


Service dogs do not need documentation

By June Watanabe Star Bulleton

Question: I have on two occasions seen two women attempt to enter a museum with what they called "service dogs." One wore a collar with the words "service dog" on it. When asked by a security officer for documentation that this was officially a service dog, the owner could not produce it. When she could not produce the standard required dog tags, she was turned away. I understand that service dogs are legitimately prescribed for some people as a form of emotional support. What sort of official documentation is required, and what kinds of animals may be used?

Answer: While service dogs are supposed to be trained to do specific tasks -- not only to provide emotional support -- there is no federal or state requirement for any official training program or certification.

Just on the face of what you described, the woman and her dog should have been allowed in, according to Francine Wai, executive director of the state Disability and Communication Access Board.

She could file a complaint with the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, Wai said. (The center can be reached at 949-2928; voice/TTY, 949-2922. Information can be found at www.hawaiidisabilityrights.org.)

The U.S. Department of Justice's Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Web site -- www.usdoj.gov/crt/ ada/qasrvc.htm -- answers common questions posed by business owners about service animals.

One question: "How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?" The answer, basically, is that there is no official way.

The ADA notes that some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses; some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers.

"Although a number of states have programs to certify service animals, you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability," the ADA says.

Hawaii does not have a service dog certification program, Wai said.

Establishments can ask whether an animal is a service animal and what it is trained to do, she said.

If the answer is "insufficient," or if the owner is unwilling to answer, they may turn the person away, Wai said. "Or, if the animal is a threat or is disruptive, they may exclude the animal.

However, relying only on the presence of official documentation is not appropriate. Animals must not only exhibit appropriate behavior, but must be in the control and custody of the person with a disability."

As far as the ADA is concerned, a service animal is "any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability."

Wai said many people believe the federal guidelines are "too broad" and that businesses need more help in determining what is or is not legitimate.

"But, it is, nonetheless, the guidance that stands."