Service dog Rilee and handler

Service dog Rilee, a 22-month-old standard poodle, awaits instructions from handler Merlyn Lewis during a recent workshop.

Ever been to the grocery store and seen a cute little Pekingese riding in the shopping cart?

How about a dog sitting on a restaurant seat and eating from a person’s plate?

It’s these kinds of scenes that drive some folks nuts. Taking dogs — even trained service canines — inside grocery stores and restaurants is a touchy subject with many. 

But often, some detractors get caught up with what they see and believe people are abusing the privilege, which can happen. But what they can’t see is the important medical function service dogs play in the lives of handlers.

Without these trained service dogs, many handlers woulds find it difficult to function in public.

That’s why the topic was part of this year’s Citrus Business Series, a joint collaboration between the College of Central Florida and Citrus County Chamber of Commerce.

The dozen people, mainly business owners, who attended last Friday’s workshop on service dogs got an intensive education about the law involving these dogs and how to diffuse confrontations between dog handlers and the public. 

“People have strong opinions when it comes to this topic, but we shouldn’t forget that service dogs exist to assist individuals with disabilities to function within their community,” said Loren Carr, the College of Central Florida’s Corporate College director. “Whether you are for or against service dogs, it is wise to be aware of the rules and responsibilities surrounding this subject.”  

Dinah Williams, owner of Stokes Flea Market in Lecanto, said she attended the workshop because they allow dogs at her business and most of the time, the pet owners keep them under control.

She was unaware of how specific Florida laws are regarding service dogs.

“There’s so much more to it than we realized,” she said.

So what is the law? Here are some snippets that came out of Thursday’s seminar and some clarifications from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

What is a service animal?

“A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability,” according to the ADA.

“Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button,” the ADA said.

What do you mean “do work or perform tasks?”

The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.

For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog trained to alert someone when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog trained to remind her to take medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have one trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

What do Florida Statutes say about service animals?

 A service animal is not a pet, according to Florida Statutes, and such animals are limited to dogs or miniature horses. Service animals might be cute, but should be looked at as being a medical instrument, no different than a wheelchair or pacemaker.

In situations where it is not obvious the dog is a service animal, what are the only two questions an employee can ask?

“Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

Staff is not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability.

Are hotel guests allowed to leave their service animals in their hotel room when they leave the hotel?

No, the dog must be under the handler's control at all times.

Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?

No. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. 

Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves.

Can a person bring a service animal with them as they go through a salad bar or other self-service food lines?

Yes. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their handlers to and through self-service food lines. Similarly, service animals may not be prohibited from communal food preparation areas, such as are commonly found in shelters or dormitories.

Do service animals have to wear a vest, patch or special harness identifying them as such?

No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.

What is some good advice business owners dealing with someone who comes into their stores or restaurants with a dog?

Approach with sensitivity and be armed with the law in diffusing any potential problem, said Laura Lee Putzback, a certified ADA service dog coordinator who taught the workshop.

Also, be aware that every situation is different and people who come with dogs have different needs not always readily apparent. Don’t be too heavy-handed, she said.

“You are not the police,” Putzback said.

Don’t engage the handler in extended, idle conversation because most times, they just want to complete their tasks and not draw attention.

Four on the Floor

Which brings me to the two questions posed at the top of this story. 

Are service dogs allowed in shopping carts? Generally, the rule for service dogs is “four paws on the floor.” Or at least the handler must carry the dog.

For example, if a person with diabetes has a glucose alert dog, he may carry the dog in a chest pack so it can be close to his face to allow the dog to smell his breath to alert him of a change in glucose levels, the ADA says.

And a service dog eating from a restaurant table?

Absolutely not.

I missed this seminar. Will it be repeated?

Yes, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, at the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce office, 915 U.S. 19 in Crystal River. 

Individual workshop fee is $29. Register and pay online at:  http://www.cf.edu/corporatecollege , or to register by phone call 352-873-5855 or write to corporatecollege@cf.edu.   

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.

(1) comment

DM

It seems that anyone who "declares" that their dog is a service dog is allowed to take it most anywhere. No professional training, no documentation, no ID of any kind. Toothless ruling.

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