13 12 2007

Misconceptions about service dogs are common

By MELISSA VARGAS

Star-Telegram.com

Posted on Wed, Dec. 12, 2007

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/story/357201.html

HURST — Retired Army Staff Sgt. J. Alex Gonzalez wanted to do a little Christmas shopping Tuesday afternoon.

The 37-year-old disabled military police veteran loaded up his service dog, Mason, and headed to North East Mall. But Gonzalez’s Yuletide spirit turned to surprise and anger when he and Mason were asked to leave Dillard’s department store because of the store’s no-animal policy.

Dillard’s officials have since apologized to Gonzalez and say the incident appears to be a miscommunication. Service dogs and their owners are always welcome, they said. The company is reviewing the matter and could not comment further on the episode, said Dillard’s spokesman Jordan Johnson from the company headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.

Experts say the incident reflects common misconceptions about service dogs and the lack of education about the laws that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Gonzalez says he doesn’t want to shop at Dillard’s any more.

“This is discrimination and it’s wrong,” he said in an interview at his north Fort Worth home Wednesday. “I wanted to make this into a positive situation.”

A misunderstanding

Gonzalez began using the now 7-month-old Labrador several months ago to help him stay mobile after discs in his back were injured during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said. When Gonzalez holds Mason’s leash or clips it to his belt loop, the animal prevents Gonzalez from falling if his knees give out or he loses his balance.

All parties agree that Gonzalez went into the store about 5 p.m. Tuesday. He was shopping with the dog for several minutes before he attempted to take Mason up the escalator. Mason — wearing a black vest with the words “service dog do not pet” — hesitated at the moving platform and Gonzalez had to coax him on, he said.

When they reached the second floor, however, they were met by the store manager and a security guard. From there, accounts of the incident vary.

Gonzalez says the manager did not believe he was disabled because he wasn’t blind or deaf. When Gonzalez explained that he was disabled and training Mason to help him, the manager responded that dogs were not allowed in the store and that Gonzalez would be escorted out of the store, Gonzalez said.

The manager was “very firm, and I felt embarrassed and ashamed,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like I was disrespected.”

Dillard’s officials say Gonzalez never identified himself as disabled and only indicated he was training the dog. “On a daily basis Dillard’s welcomes customers with service dogs into many of its stores across the country,” Johnson said. “If a person wishes to seek to train a dog in a Dillard’s department store, the respective store manager needs to be contacted so that the best time can be established for both parties.”

After leaving the store, Gonzalez contacted Hurst police. Officers talked with Gonzalez and the manager and determined it was a civil matter. Police say there was a report of the dog causing a disturbance in the store, which gives the business owner a right to ask the animal to leave.

However, if a business owner is suspected of discriminating against a disabled person with a service animal, the business owner can be ticketed for misdemeanor discrimination, police said.

“It had nothing to do with a disturbance,” said Gonzalez, who said he has an extensive background in law enforcement and served 18 years in the Army before being honorably discharged for his disability two years ago.

“I should have been escorted out, cited or warned by a peace officer if there was [a disturbance].” Common problem

Such misunderstandings are common with service dogs, mainly because many business owners don’t realize that denying service dogs and their owners access to a public place is discrimination and a violation of federal law, said Ernie Landy, a volunteer coordinator for the non-profit organization Guide Dogs of Texas, Inc.

“There is a very big lack of education and business owners are worried about health codes,” Landy said. He added that dogs in training are protected under the same statute as trained guide dogs.

However, Landy also noted that people have been known to pass their pet dogs off as service dogs. “I carry a card that has a state resource code on it and most of the time people are understanding,” Landy said.

‘Not looking for money’

Gonzalez says he is continuously training the sometimes rambunctious dog, using DVD instruction and online information in accordance with the Assistance Dogs International Checklist. Gonzalez said he is in the process of having Mason certified as an official service dog.

On Wednesday afternoon, he received a call from a Dillard’s district manager who apologized to him profusely and told Gonzalez if he ever had a problem at a Dillard’s store again to call him, Gonzalez said.

The incident is still fresh in his mind and Gonzalez, an advocate for veterans, wants to prevent what he calls discrimination from happening to others.

“I’m not looking for money, at this point,” he said.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Act takes priority over the local or state laws and regulations and maintains that privately owned businesses must allow service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

What is a service animal?

Any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If the animal meets that definition, it is considered a service animal regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by state or local government. Service animals are used by people who are blind, deaf, use wheelchairs or have impairments with balance.

The rules

— A business owner may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting a service animal to accompany a person with a disability.

— Although county health departments sometimes say only guide dogs can be admitted, ADA regulations supersede those rules. Animals may be excluded from a facility, however, if the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other people. The animal can also be excluded for disrupting a business if drastic changes to the business would have to be made to accommodate the animal.

— In Texas, an assistance animal in training has the same rights as long as the trainer is an agent of an organization generally recognized by agencies involved in the rehabilitation of animals and their handlers.

Violations

— The penalty for violating the Texas law is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine between $300 to $1,000. Victims of such discrimination can also seek damages in civil court for violations of their civil rights.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Justice and Texas Law on Assistance Animals

Melissa Vargas, 817-685-3888

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