Don’t judge a book by its cover

Dear Editor:

My husband and I went to dinner at a local restaurant. While waiting to go in and place our order, one employee approached me and advised that they didn’t allow dogs on the grass. I told him it was my service dog and he said “OK” and walked away. A minute or so later, another person came up and said they don’t allow dogs. Again, I advised the person that he was my service dog. She said I should “be prepared to be questioned again” and “he doesn’t look like a service dog.” In fairness, at the moment the employees approached me, I was holding my dog’s “service dog” harness. It was over 80 degrees and since vests (or any form of ID are not required by law), I do not make him wear it in high temps.

In addition to being a disabled individual, I am also a former service dog trainer, having trained my dog and dozens of others. I never get upset when store or restaurant employees question whether or not my dog is a service dog.

In this instance, I found myself asking the second employee “What does a service dog look like?” She replied that “he looks too old and you don’t look disabled. Usually we can see something wrong with a person.” I was surprised by the second part of her rationale.

For the record, service dogs can be any breed, sex, age or size. They do not have to wear or produce anything as “proof” of being a service dog. The best way for anyone to distinguish between a service dog and a pet is the demeanor and behavior of the dog. Service dogs are specially trained to perform work or a task that directly mitigates their human partner’s disability.

As for distinguishing disabled people, I have what’s called a “hidden” disability. I don’t use a cane or a wheelchair. I have PTSD from an on-the-job incident as a first responder as well as mobility issues from an autoimmune disease. People can look at me and think I am perfectly “normal.” But my PTSD can be triggered by many things and at any moment. My disease causes me to drop things and affects my balance. I don’t get to choose the time or place things happen. That’s why my dog is there. He’s trained to bring me out of a hyper-alert stage, pick up my keys or help me stand up.

So, for those in the business world, when you see someone with a service dog and aren’t sure if they are “legit” or not, don’t try and judge a book by its cover. Ask the questions allowed by the ADA: 1) Is that a service dog required because of a disability; and 2) What work or task does the dog do for you? I am happy to answer those questions. People with pets won’t be. Some disabled people may not want to be questioned, but under the law, you are entitled to an answer because how else can you make that determination (and help cut down on “service dog fraud”)? For the record (and another time), an “emotional support” dog is not a service animal qualified for public access under the ADA. They lack the specific task/work training to mitigate disabilities and therefore can only enter businesses with permission.

L.A. Bykowsky


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