Educating the public about service dogs can be one of the most trying parts of being a service dog handler. Sometimes it's fun, when you meet someone nice who is interested in your dog's job. But with gatekeepers—people who can try to deny you access with your SD to a store or other public place—educating can be uncomfortable and downright confrontational.
Sunday is my big public access practice day with Kaline. We frequent most of the same places every Sunday. Yet today, at two of my favorite places, we were confronted by unfamiliar employees who were clearly very misinformed about laws regarding service dogs.
The first place was Penzey's, the spice shop. It is an excellent place to work on leave it, since there are so many interesting smells everywhere. We've also worked on maneuvering in its small spaces. Never before had we encountered a problem. One of the guys who works there is a huge sweetheart and just loves to watch Kaline practicing his skills.
As we walked in, a guy I didn't know asked if Kaline was a service dog. I am always tempted to say something snarky, given that Kaline now wears the BLD harness, several SD patches, and I have a SD leash patch across my chest on my over-the-shoulder leash at all times. Nonetheless, I always restrain myself and just reply, “Yes.” New Guy took in my answer, then bent to peer closely at Kaline. In general, this is a stupid and extremely rude thing to do to a dog. But Kaline doesn't care, so I will usually let it slide. Then I heard the man muttering, “Is he wearing ... ? Yes, he is. You're okay.”
I have friends who work their dogs “naked,” for various reasons. The right to work your dog without identifying gear is protected by federal law. So even though I never work my dogs naked, I like to educate those who seem to think vests or harnesses are required. I calmly told this man that according to law, Kaline does not have to wear anything while working. He shot back, “According to the law, he does.”
Challenge me on a point of SD law and I will not back down. I pulled up the Commonly Asked Questions from the US Department of Justice and pointed out the section stating that not all service dogs wear vests or harnesses. I even used an example of a seizure alert dog, which requires no special gear to be able to help its handler (whereas a guide dog is pretty useless without a guide harness). His face closed and he replied that he had to follow corporate policy as well as local law. I informed him that corporate policy doesn't trump federal law. (Local, California laws, are in line with federal law.) He just said, “Thank you,” which really meant, “I am not going to listen to you anymore. This conversation is over.” Guess who will be contacting Penzey's corporate tomorrow!
Our second confrontation came at Trader Joe's. We have not missed a TJ's Sunday in probably over a year, except for when I've been out of town. Kaline is always extra on top of his game in there, for some reason. We used to have a nice buddy who was on the staff there, and I helped him out when he was unsure of the business' rights when someone brings an ill-behaved dog inside, claiming it's a service dog. This is another place where we have literally never had an issue with any employee.
When we walked in, I saw a Golden Retriever SD from a local program, which was pretty exciting. I was in the middle of praising Kaline for looking away from the dog when an unfamiliar employee came up and asked if Kaline was a SD. Yes. (Duh.) Employee then leaned into Kaline's face and began baby-talking him. Keeping my voice calm while I seethed, I said, “Please don't talk to him. It distracts him from his work.”
“Do you have his papers?”
“There's no such thing as ‘papers.’ You can get illegitimate certification off scam internet sites, that's pretty much it. It's illegal to ask for such a thing.”
“No it's not. It's a new law that went into effect January 1.”
“If that were a new law, I would know about it. Would you like to see the ADA?”
He said no and walked away. I had a panic attack so bad I could hardly breathe. There was no place to go for full DPT so I knelt in front of the cheese and Kaline pressed himself hard into my chest until I was at least somewhat okay again.
So we went to find a supervisor. With the ADA business brief on my phone, scrolled to the point about the two questions and how requiring papers, certification, or ID is illegal, I informed the supervisor about what his employee had said. I asked for a copy of this supposed new law. Ever so shockingly, the supervisor had no idea what new law the guy was talking about. (Could it possibly be because it doesn't exist?) I asked him to please educate his employees on the two questions, and to remember that if the two questions are answered properly, and the dog is not disruptive, unhousebroken, or vicious, they cannot have the handler remove it.
It was not a fun morning.
However, education is extremely important to me. Part of my job as a SD handler, as I see it anyway, is to make things easier for any team coming behind me. When people show ID, or fake certification, they make it harder for the next handler, who will now be faced with a gatekeeper who's learned that teams should be carrying those items. Educating businesses on their rights and SD handler rights can be extremely shitty and uncomfortable. I hate having to do it. But in my opinion, if you cannot handle advocating for yourself as a SD handler in some way, whether it's verbally or simply by handing gatekeepers preprinted law cards, then you probably should not be using a SD. Some people are better at handling issues than others, and of course it takes practice. I'm still not that good at it (see panic attack). It's very, very necessary though.
So, we'll finally be printing up some law cards (I've never really felt the need, until today). Hopefully our crap morning today will lead to easier mornings for other SD handlers.