Has everyone noticed the explosion of dogs just about everywhere? From grocery stores to airplanes, pooches are now a solid part of the people world. Long ago they were relegated to farms, then moved up to house pet (meaning they stayed in the house) and now as the saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat … okay, bad joke. But dogs have become a regular part of public establishments. How legal is that?

Like stepping in the doggie mierda or merde – that’s what it feels like deciphering the legality of animals in public. Let’s start with the difference among pets, service dogs and emotional support dogs. Animals defined as regular pets are easy – they can be discriminated against, meaning no goats, kittens, fish, hamsters, fidos, etc. in public places unless the establishment allows them. 

Service dogs are legal just about everywhere, because they are trained to help the disabled. There was a time that miniature horses fit the category – not sure how – but not any more. Now, service dogs are not just seeing-eye dogs but also medical alert dogs that can predict seizures for epileptics, help with PTSD, and even ferret out gluten for celiac sufferers in a restaurant. These dogs are trained six months or more for their specialty, but the catch? There is no legal certification required or legal need to wear a service vest proving their purpose. That would infringe upon the disabled owners’ right to privacy, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. These dogs are allowed in any public accommodation from airplanes to grocery stores, and management can only ask, according to the ADA, if the animal is a service dog and what task it performs, since there is no paper documentation to prove the abilities. But fair warning: a proper service dog is trained for “public access,” meaning in public places it will not exhibit: aggressive behavior, public urination or defecation (only on command), begging for food or affection or hyperactivity or excited behaviors. (Another way to distinguish pets from service animals.) The dog also must be under leash or tether unless the owner’s disability makes it impossible to hold a leash or tether, then they must act under voice command or signals.

“It’s about understanding dogs as tools,” said David Zuniga, owner of Dogs en Vogue. “Unfortunately, because the ADA says it is discriminatory to ask for proof of service, a lot of people take advantage of the situation and sneak in untrained dogs. And corporations are afraid of litigation, so they let these people slide.” 

Now, if the animal defecates, urinates, shows aggressive behavior, etc. then business owners are allowed the right to deny access or refuse service. And yes, the animal owner has to clean up the mess.

“I wish companies would train employees to ask the right questions; then they can really find out if it is a service dog,” said Sophia Pierce, trainer and also owner of Dogs en Vogue. “The lines have gotten too blurred between service dogs and other animals.” 

Service animals should not be approached, petted or offered food, but instead left alone to complete their tasks and focus on their owner. If distracted, they could miss the owner’s cues for help. 

That leaves Emotional Service Animals (ESA); what’s their story? An ESA is not limited to dogs, but is any animal that provides therapeutic benefit through companionship, and no training is required. So an ESA is not allowed full public access like service dogs. Nope, that cute teacup Yorkie isn’t allowed in the store just because it makes someone feel better. There are legal rights for ESAs so emotionally disabled persons will not be discriminated against for housing. Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is permissible in a housing unit that has a “no pets” rule. It is illegal to ask about the mental disability, but ESAs do have a certificate. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an assistance animal is not classified as a pet, so proof starts with a letter from a doctor or just even a medical therapist (kind of blurry classification) to obtain a certificate, nowadays commonly online.

Lastly, Pierce cautions pet owners taking untrained animals into public places. “Owners do not want to leave their animal alone at home but then, the animal may not be mentally equipped for loud public places.” Putting animals in situations they cannot handle can do more harm than good and cause them stress, resulting in aggressive behaviors or again, unwanted accidents, oh scheisse.

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