I’ve written before about what it’s like to be hassled for having a service dog. But it just keeps happening, so I need to say something more about this. Lately, everywhere I go, people keep asking for “paperwork” on my dog, and trying to deny us access when I refuse to provide it. Let me just say now, that is illegal. Yes. So is asking me why I need her, or anything about my medical condition or history. It’s not just illegal, it’s rude. (Would you want a complete stranger asking you personal questions about your medical history and diagnoses? No. Me either.) As I like to tell the people who ask me these things, this is the law under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and please read this if you have any questions.
You may ask me whether my dog is a service animal, and you may ask what service she provides. That is all. If my dog is disruptive or misbehaving, you may ask me to take her outside, service dog or not. That will not happen, as she is well trained. So you are protected, and so am I, by the law.
No, the Health Department isn’t going to shut you down for allowing my dog in your restaurant without “paperwork,” even though many people try to tell me this when I refuse to produce an ID card or paperwork on my dog. Do you know why the health department isn’t going to bother you about my service dog? Because they know the law, and so should you. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is clear on this point. My dog does not require special identification for you to inspect, and she and I are allowed access anywhere that the public is normally allowed to go. You cannot exclude us, you cannot harass us, and you cannot subject us to a barrage of time-consuming, personal, and harassing questions,
“But what about fake service dogs,” I was recently asked. Well, what about them? After the New Yorker published a ridiculous screed about a year ago decrying the alleged scourge of “fake service animals,” people seem to feel entitled to grill me about my dog, particularly since she is small and doesn’t fit the stereotype. Other outlets picked up the meme, and suddenly articles on alleged fake service dogs were everywhere, giving everyone a sense that they are entitled to question every service dog team. However, it turns out that almost all of the articles are coming from one source: An organization called Canine Companions for Independence, that breeds, trains, and sells service dogs. Their CEO has been quoted as saying he has “declared war on fake service dogs,” and has made it a mission to require that all service dogs be officially from an agency like, well… his. So there’s some unexamined self interest going on in the fake hype around fake service animals.
In reality, though, so called “fake” service animals are not some new epidemic, and the only people actually harmed by them are people like me, who now get hassled everywhere we go because of that hype. (And because their untrained dogs are distracting my dog. Yeh. If you fake a disability and try to pass an untrained dog off as a service animal, you really are a douche. But that’s between you and me and your shitty rotten conscience. Everyone else? You’re NOT helping by hassling and harassing ME.)
Ironically, if someone actually does show you ID or “paperwork” on their dog, it is much more likely to be a fake service animal than someone who refuses. Those of us with real service dogs know the law, and we know that there is no such thing as a “registry” for service animals, and there is no “paperwork” to prove that they are service animals. Any ID or “paperwork” was likely ordered online, and that may or may not indicate the dog is not really a service dog. I, myself, actually do carry cards for those occasions when I absolutely must have access and some asshole gatekeeper refuses to allow me in without ID. But I ordered the cards online, and so could anyone else. I generally refuse to provide these cards, and if I do I always take the time to explain the law first.
In point of fact, a service dog needs to be well trained and not a nuisance, and ANY dog, service or not, can be excluded if she or he is barking, growling, menacing, pooping on things, or whatever. So if the dog is well behaved and calmly hanging out with her or his handler, and if the law allows you to have the animal in your business because you asked if it was a service animal and were told yes, then why bother the dog or the handler? If it craps under the table or tries to bite another customer, send it out. Otherwise, leave it alone.
Here’s why this is a big deal to me.
I have had a service dog for seven years. The reason, while it’s not really anyone’s business but my own, is that I struggle with a whole plate of anxiety disorders that I’m pretty frank about. No, I don’t mean I’m a little anxious so I bring my dog everywhere like a teddy bear. I mean I suffer from debilitating, disabling conditions that would have put most people into an institution by now. It is what it is. My service dog allows me to function normally in the world in ways I otherwise might not be able to do. I don’t really like to go into all the ways she helps me, because it embarrasses me and reveals more about my medical conditions than I like to. The long and short of it is, I have her with me because going out into the world is hard for me, interacting with people is hard for me, and I need to do these things anyway.*
So when you stop me at the doorway and single me out in front of other customers to challenge me on my right to be there with my dog, you are embarrassing me. You are making me feel all of the things that someone with a plate of anxiety disorders does NOT WANT TO BE MADE TO FEEL every time I go out in public. Do I seem upset and angry when you challenge me like this? It’s probably because I have been forced to explain the law to virtually everyone I have come across today, and I am TIRED of it. It’s probably because 9 times out of 10, no matter how politely I try to explain the Americans with Disabilities Act to people like you, they don’t believe me and continue to argue with me. It’s probably because I keep getting embarrassed, humiliated, and denied access to public venues because people like you do not bother to understand the law.
I’ve tried for YEARS to be patient, but after awhile, I just want to fucking go out to eat and not have to walk through a gauntlet to get to my table. Maybe I just want to buy a freaking jug of orange juice and don’t WANT every staff person in the store chasing me down the aisles and telling me I can’t have a dog in there (talking to YOU, Cherry Valley Marketplace in Brooklyn). Maybe I just want to sit down for a few drinks with a friend and not be harassed and intimidated or, in one especially egregious case now in litigation, I don’t deserve to be ASSAULTED by an idiotic bouncer (Cafe Hollywood). In other words, maybe I want to do the same things you do, and I do not want to be hassled for it any more than you do.
Please understand, just because my dog is small and cute does not mean she is not a serious service dog doing important and legitimate work. Please also understand, I probably don’t want to have to talk to strangers about my diagnosis everywhere I go. I also don’t want you distracting my dog by making noises at her, reaching for her, trying to feed her, or any of the other weird things that well-meaning people do when we are out in public. She’s working, and needs to focus on her job. She does not like to have strangers sticking their hands into her face any more than you or I would, and I swear the next person who loudly barks at her is gonna get drop kicked. (WHY is that a thing?!)
Here are some resources for people who want to understand the proper way to interact with a service dog team:
Please understand, it isn’t just once or twice that people bother me about my dog. It’s virtually everywhere we go. Any time I want to go into a new place, I have to pause outside the door and ask myself whether it’s worth the struggle I will probably encounter just inside the doorway. Even places where I have gone successfully before can suddenly become unfriendly and intimidating with a change of staff. It’s hard enough for me to go out into the world, I just don’t need this. Please educate yourself, your friends, your staff. Please help me to spread the word that service dogs come in all sizes and shapes, that the law requires that they be granted access, and that no one has the right to grill me about whether or not she is a “real” service dog any more than anyone would be entitled to grill someone who uses a wheelchair or crutches. Please respect the civil rights of all people with disabilities, whether those disabilities are visible ones or invisible ones.
* Although I have Ruby with me due to anxiety issues, she is not an Emotional Support Animal, which is a different thing under the law. Unlike an ESA, my dog is trained specifically to assist with my disabilities in many different ways throughout the day. An ESA, on the other hand, is not required to be trained at all, and their purpose is simply emotional comfort. They do not have the same access rights as a service animal.