Hope for Disabilities

Fulfilling unmet needs in the disability community

Photo courtesy CCI

QUESTION: Is it now the Department of Health's policy that dogs are allowed in supermarkets for persons with "mental disabilities" or psychological needs? I have seen a Pomeranian in a personal shopping cart, a large dog on a limp leash and a terrier on a 4-foot leash. The owners appeared quite capable of shopping without any canine assistance. I've been told that the stores are not allowed to ask about the needs of the shopper or nature of the animal. Are the owners' alleged disabilities certified? Are the animals trained or otherwise certified? I understand the need for service animals. But this is a slippery slope, with the potential for unsanitary "accidents" or unruly dogs, not to mention, many people are simply allergic or otherwise uncomfortable with dogs in a supermarket.

ANSWER: There is no federal or state requirement that service animals be officially trained or certified. (See archives.starbulletin.com/2006/05/25/news/kokualine.html.)

However, there is concern about people passing off pets as service dogs.

At a recent informal forum with guide and service dog users, "by far the biggest concern is the potential for fraud by individuals misrepresenting themselves as having a legitimate service dog," said Francine Wai, executive director of the state Disability and Communication Access Board.

Last September, in response to "many, many complaints about service animals," the U.S. Justice Department issued new rules that updated and clarified regulations, "though not to the satisfaction of many parties and not in the area regarding certification," Wai said.

She summed up the changes, which take effect March 15:

» Service animals are defined as dogs only. There is a small exception only for miniature horses.

» Service dogs must be trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, directly related to the disability.

» The provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship is not accepted as work or a task. However, there can be psychiatric service dogs for someone with an emotional or psychiatric condition.

» The dog must be housebroken and under the control of the handler.

Wai said a public accommodation still "shall not ask about the nature or extent of a person's disability but may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal."

It can ask if the dog is required because of a disability and what work/task the animal is trained to perform, but cannot require documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.

"So while the definitions and criteria are all much improved, the lack of certification or proof still presents a challenge for many places," Wai said.

What is a service animal?

At Paws 4 Ability, we get calls from the local community, service members, veterans and their caregivers requesting our help to secure service dogs, usually for PTSD. But when we ask if the individual would be better served by a well-mannered companion dog or cat, we’re always asked, “What’s the difference? We’re so glad you asked. First, a little context.

According to the Defense Department, more than 46,000 U.S. military personnel have been wounded in action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since March, 2003. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), depression and other psychologically-related conditions has led to a great deal of discussion of what are being called the “invisible wounds” of war. Anecdotally, huge numbers of veterans with such wounds are not counted in the official WIA (wounded in action) statistics, and criteria for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders like PTSD vary widely both within and beyond our shores. In the U.S., some estimates believe the walking, yet invisibly wounded number in the hundreds of thousands.

Veterans of prior conflicts have and continue to suffer from these very same maladies, but it took Iraq and Afghanistan to bring the true scope, nature and human cost of these types of ailments into sharp relief – even though the Veterans Administration’s own statistics cite a higher incidence of PTSD among Vietnam veterans than OIF/OEF veterans. 

The public today is more engaged in the discourse surrounding PTSD and, to a lesser extend, TBI and other trauma-related afflictions. Many veterans with PTSD cope with feelings of isolation, depression, anger, heightened sensitivity to loud sounds, fear of crowds or anxiety in social situations in general. It’s therefore unsurprising that attention has turned to the human-animal bond as a way to help PTSD and other sufferers overcome many of the emotionally-driven impacts of their condition.

While we don’t discount the merits of non-traditional service animals like monkeys or horses, the simple fact is that dogs are most often used for service functions. They’re highly trainable, easily accommodated in most living situations and have a long track record of working with people to perform a wide range of complex tasks. 

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."