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Policy change would benefit merchants, public, disabled

Rights in conflict always pose public policy and juridical problems. But in the case that unnecessary ambiguity exacerbates the conflict, government can reduce this.

Twice in the past year northwest Louisiana commercial establishments have encountered controversy over the appropriateness of service dogs on premises. Recently, another such incident occured in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, current nationally-defined disability law is the source of misunderstandings in this realm.

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows service animals (almost always dogs, but other animals can be used if they are “individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability” where the animal must perform an act that the disabled person cannot) into almost any public place (if the animal does not compromise the essential function of the business; for example, they can be excluded from zoos because they may carry diseases to zoo animals). The problem is, the law does not define what constitutes “training” nor does the owner typically have to provide any documentation concerning that training or his “disability.”

To ask about the latter is considered discriminatory and while many organizations provide high-quality training and include identification cards, vests, and the like, and states may have certification programs, none of this documentation is required to allow admittance to the animal; simple assertion by the owner is enough. Not even state or local health regulations supersede the initial contact: while dogs in general may be prohibited from entry because of health concerns, service dogs cannot be unless after entry they create a health hazard (such as licking foodstuffs) or other disturbance to the nature of the business in which subsequently the dog can be prohibited and the owner invited to stay in the business without the dog.

This vagueness and bias greatly in the favor of the “disabled” person has produced two regrettable trends that not only produce confusion and needless conflict, but also cast negativity upon the disabled using service animals in general. One is that some places like pet stores offer to “train” dogs to be service animals in a matter of hours. Frankly, this is almost legalized fraud. For adequately dealing with the demands of most disabilities and for public conveyance of an animal, qualified dogs take months or even years to train.

Worse, many of these places claim they can take your own dog and train it this way. The fact is, reputable organizations (one example being Canine Companions for Independence) are highly selective in the dogs they take, judging them on strength, intelligence, sociability, and discipline – and most dogs wash out because of the exacting standards. Hardly any pets meet these standards. The few dogs that make the cut are recertified by their training organizations on a regular basis.

Those people permitted to be given one of these dogs also must qualify. For example, someone who claims disability because of “anxiety” probably could not legally use a service animal because there is no specific “task” or set of them that the animal helps that person perform. Qualifying individuals also spend days or weeks in training in all aspects of service dogs so that the dogs are used properly without their training dissolving (dogs being dogs it can disappear rapidly through poor technique applied by the owners). The humans also face recertification by the organizations and additional training if necessary.

High-quality trained and superior dogs are necessary because anything otherwise makes them far likelier to cause disruptions. Owners themselves must be knowledgeable. So with dogs ill-suited for their roles and owners who don’t know what their doing, perhaps who know even less about the law itself, combined with merchants’ confusion, these create a recipe for potentially disastrous relations. In turn, each such incident raises the animus of the public against the disabled using service animals, unfairly besmirching responsible human team members.

Local governments can only alleviate the situation somewhat given the legal primacy of the ADA and its ambiguity. But one thing they can do is require licenses for any service animal team on the basis of health and safety that would involve testing owners on their knowledge of the ADA and when it applies relevant to service animals. While legally it could not prevent the use of these animals without it, this would increase levels of education that might avoid inappropriate or illegal uses of animals and potential conflict (licenses automatically could be granted to those who get animals from reputable trainers, such as members of Assistance Dogs International).

In the granting of business licenses, part of that also could require testing on the ADA so proprietors (responsible for training their employees) are aware of when animals legally may be used and when they may be denied. This can be legally required and enforced.

As the ADA has expanded through regulatory and judicial arenas, conflicts over the rights of the disabled and those in public purveyance only can increase. Especially since Louisiana aspires to be a tourist destination, it would be wise for local governments to take these proactive steps.

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