When Service Dogs Misbehave: Acknowledging Inappropriate Dog Behavior in Public

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Responsible service-dog handlers aim to keep their dogs as inconspicuous as possible, and are quick to take corrective action if the dog’s behavior becomes problematic. When they don’t, businesses are legally allowed to ask the handler to remove the dog. While many business owners are afraid to exercise this right, not doing so has created significant problems for the disability community.

“Many businesses aren’t asking handlers to remove their dogs because they are afraid of being sued and just think the problem will go away in an hour or so,” says Dailyah Rudek, executive director of The ProBoneO Program. “Then, unfortunately, they go and talk to their lawmakers.” This has led to attempts to draft tighter state service-dog laws. While states cannot enact service-dog laws that are narrower in scope than the federal law, they can draft laws that retract state-specific enhanced protections, such as removing access that had previously been granted to service dogs in training. Additionally, the increased public attention to proposed regulation changes often means that all service-dog teams are more harshly scrutinized. “Handlers have fought so hard over the years to get higher protections, and now we’re seeing more language that would potentially pull back some of those extra protections,” Rudek says.

To help combat this problem, The ProBoneO Program is launching a campaign targeting business owners with the goal of educating them about their rights and the responsibilities of service-dog handlers. When a dog is behaving inappropriately in public, Rudek says it’s important that business owners exercise their right to ask the handler to remove the dog. Doing so encourages legitimate service-dog handlers to maintain minimum public access standards for their dogs, while discouraging pet owners from attempting to “fake it” by bringing ill-mannered pet dogs into establishments that don’t ordinarily permit pets.

Rudek has the following recommendations for business owners who are concerned about risks to their establishments or other customers posed by ill-behaved real or “fake” service dogs:

– Know the legally allowable questions that can be asked: 1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Business owners should understand that the questions must be answered in a credible fashion.

– Consider compromising with the handler. Acknowledge that the team is struggling, and perhaps invite them to return on a less busy day when the business could offer a bit more leeway with the dog’s behavior. This is especially helpful for handlers who are trying to train through an issue while in public.

– Offer an alternate means of accommodation that does not involve the dog. For example, an employee can gather the items on the handler’s shopping list or otherwise assist the person in the absence of the dog.

– Seek out a witness or two who can attest to the dog’s inappropriate behavior; this could go a long way toward preventing a lawsuit.

– If the establishment utilizes surveillance video, keep any related footage for at least two years.

– Proactively call the Department of Justice ADA Hotline to report having to require that a dog be removed, and why.

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