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Doggie discrimination: What are your rights when it comes to service dogs?

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PHILIPSBURG -

A Bozeman woman recently won a $37,000 verdict in a case of doggie discrimination. 

A federal jury found the woman’s landlord discriminated against her for having a service dog, charging her more in rent and threatening to evict her. Service dog owners, landlords and businesses have rights but they can sometimes be unclear.

One service dog owners knows this all too well.

With his wagging tail and wet kisses you may just see a pet, but service dog Griz is much more to his owner David Riggs .

"Everybody loves Griz,” said David Riggs, service dog owner.

David trains service dogs for veterans and autistic children. He knows first hand the benefits.

"In 1984, I experienced a spinal injury due to a gunshot wound and I was shot point blank with a 38 calibrator,” said Riggs. “I was immediately paralyzed. It was then I had to look at a new life."

Griz helps him overcome the physical and mental injuries created by that shooting.

"He helps me with post-traumatic stress,” said Riggs, “He helps with my mobility issues, helps me if I fall and picks up objects comes in handy when I have surgery."

But not everyone is as welcoming to service animals. 

"There's a lot of confusion when it comes down to what are the rights,” said Riggs.

In the U.S., service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” 

Landowners and business owners cannot say “no” to a service dog. They can only ask two questions: is your dog a service dog for a disability? And what task does this dog do for you?

Handler rights:

Depending on the type of Service Dog, the dog may have anywhere from three to a dozen different tasks or even more. Some examples of Service Dog tasks include: retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, pulling a wheelchair up a slope, waking someone with PTSD from a nightmare, licking a seizing person to help end the seizure via tactile stimulation, burrowing under the legs of a person with POTS to help raise their blood pressure, alerting a diabetic to dangerous shifts in blood sugar and bracing an unsteady or unbalanced handler.

The federal law says questions about a person's disability are off limits and a dog owner is not required to show a special identification card, or training documentation for the dog. And, the dog is not required to perform a task.

Of course that leads some to stretch the rules.

"Unfortunately there are people out there that are taking advantage of this including people going online and buying a vest and IDs to travel there dogs on the airplane,” said Riggs. “Well yeah they're misrepresenting a service dog, but in my mind it's worse that they're misrepresenting a person with a disability and it makes our lives very difficult." 

So far Washington state and 18 other states have misdemeanor penalties for individuals who falsely claim a pet as a service dog. 

However, Montana does not have fraudulent representation of service animal laws yet.

Here is a list of states that have laws on fraudulent service dogs.

Business Owner Rights: 

According to the ADA National Network, the Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft.

Some airlines are asking for proof or documentation that the animal is a "true" service animal. In that case you’d have to show a prescription or note from a trainer.

But landlords have rights too. A service dog can be removed from a rental or a business if the dog is “out of control” or is causing damage to the property. 

Riggs says it’s not likely that a true service dog  like Griz will need to be removed.

“Because they’re not pets they’re service dogs,” said Riggs. “We look at them almost like medical devices. I hate to say it like a wheel chair but you know they help us that much.”

Types of Guide Animals:

There are different types of service animals.

Guide dogs or seeing eye dogs are trained to lead a blind person.

Hearing dogs are trained to help someone with hearing loss. The dog may alert to an alarm or other sounds.

Sensory dogs are trained to identify an oncoming seizure, asthma attack or hypoglycemia and alert the person, sometimes getting them to lie down or finding help.

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to notice the signs that a person is having a psychiatric episode, such as disorientation from PTSD, a panic attack or a hallucination. The dog may calm a person by lying on them or licking the face or help a person with PTSD feel safer by standing between them and another person. A dog could also be trained to interrupt an autistic person's repetitive motions.

Mobility dogs are trained to help a person with mobility problems. They may help a person get around, pull a wheelchair, or pick things up. Disabilities may include an injury, multiple sclerosis, arthritis or ataxium - a loss of muscle coordination.

A Service Dog is a Service Dog regardless of what they are or are not wearing, and their handlers possess the exact same access rights with or without their dog in gear. Vests, harnesses and jackets are very commonly seen on working Service Dog teams, but by law, the dog isn’t required to wear anything in order to work in public.

Emotional Support Dogs:

There is a difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs.

“Emotional support dogs do not do a task for the owner they are there just to comfort,” said Riggs. 

Emotional support animals or comfort animals are not recognized as service animals under ADA guidelines because they are not limited to working with people with disabilities and, therefore, are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals. 

Federal regulations allow an emotional support animal, whether it be a dog, a cat, a pot-bellied pig or even a miniature horse in one case, to travel on airplanes in the cabin with the owner, outside of a carrier, and for free if the owner has proper documentation, which means a letter from a doctor or other mental health professional. The animal must be well-behaved and there must be adequate space onboard. The airlines are allowed to ask people traveling with emotional support animals for that documentation, but they are not required to.

Emotional support dogs do not have the same access to public places that service dogs do. With a doctor’s note explaining the need for the emotional support animal, they can accompany their owners on airplanes and into housing that is usually pet-restricted. 

Many certificates you can buy online for Emotional Support Animals are not true forms of certification, but that doesn't stop pets from being posed as Emotional Support Animals. 


David Riggs with K9 Care Montana says these instances cause problems for both Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs. Riggs says that's why it's important to be informed on dog rights.

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