International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

Assistance Dog Access Laws:
Getting Through the Maze

NOTE: This copyrighted work is presented for our use by the author, Ilene Caroom, Esq.. It is used with permission. May we all learn from the clarity she presents. Thanks, Ilene!

by Ilene Caroom, Esq.

Confused by the proliferation of assistance dog access laws? Not sure whether to cite the ADA, the White Cane Law or Section 504?

Well join the crowd. There’s a lot of confusion about civil laws, criminal laws, federal laws, and state laws, not to mention laws versus regulations versus policy. Let’s try to clarify the differences so that you can be your dog’s most effective advocate.

Please remember that this is a confusing area, analytically, and that there has not been much guidance from the courts. This article is not intended to give you legal advice nor can I guarantee that my interpretation would apply in any particular case. For specific information about your own situation, contact a lawyer.

1. Aren’t they all "laws"

Civil laws, such as anti-discrimination laws can be enacted by the federal government or by the state. The penalty for violating a civil law can be money damages or orders to correct the situation.

Criminal laws, such as White Cane Laws, provide the possibility of imprisonment or fine (money to the government rather than to the person whose rights were violated). The states enact most criminal laws. The federal government has limited ability to enact criminal laws; generally these involve interstate crimes.

Laws (or statutes) are made by our elected legislators -- members of Congress or of our state legislatures.

Local laws or ordinances are made by counties or cities. They may be civil or criminal, depending upon how much authority the state has granted the locality.

Regulations are adopted by administrative agencies of the federal, state, or local government. They detail how the statutory law will be implemented. A properly adopted regulation will have the force and effect of a law.

Case law is made by federal and state courts. Judges will interpret the laws or regulations and apply them to individual cases. Although the different states and the federal and state court systems are separate and do not control each other, judges often consider the opinions of other courts in interpreting similar laws or regulations.

2. What laws cover access for my assistance dog?

Federal laws granting access rights to assistance dogs include: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Sections 501 (federal government), 503 (federal contractors) and 504 (recipients of federal financial assistance) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (which covers most everybody).

Federal regulations have been enacted to detail the responsibilities of businesses, employers, schools, transportation providers, and others under those federal laws. The most frequently cited regulation is that of the Department of Justice.

State laws are of two types. Most states have enacted civil rights laws which may or may not mention assistance dogs. If the state laws provides you with less protection than the ADA, then the ADA will "supersede" the state law and you are entitled to the greater remedy the federal laws provides.

The other type of state law is criminal. Most states have "White Cane Laws" which allow you to call the police or file criminal charges for denial of access. These laws are not superseded by the ADA.

3. Why does it matter which law I use?

The federal law is intended to grant liberal and extensive access to assistance dogs. However, the responsibility of the employer, business owner, etc. is only to provide "reasonable accommodation". The business can refuse to allow access to your dog if admission would fundamentally alter the nature of the service provided or would jeopardize the safety of the operation. The ADA is relatively new and we don’t have case law or experience to tell us how this will work.

The state criminal laws usually provide an absolute right of access for guide and hearing dogs, and most have added service dogs. Usually the only condition is that the owner is responsible for any damage done by the dog. There is no test of "reasonableness."

4. Is there a difference in who qualifies to use the laws?

Yes. Although ADA itself says nothing about assistance dogs, the Department of Justice (the lead agency on this ) has adopted regulations which define "service animals" as being individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the disabled person.

Because the regulation says nothing about any particular form of identification requirements, some people argue that this means a business is not permitted to ask for any documentation that ht dog is more than a pet. Others point out the ADA is based on a body of law developed over the past 30 years which as determined that a person who identified himself or herself as disabled can be asked to demonstrate how a requested accommodation relates to the disability.

At this point, what does seem clear is that if you have a disability which substantially limits you in one or more major life activities, and your dog was specially trained to do demonstrable tasks (as opposed to, say , social or therapy dogs, whose work is to effect a change in the person’s emotional or psychological state), you are entitled to protection under the ADA.

The state criminal laws usually specify a particular form of identification for the dog, generally an identification card, harness, backpack or tag. Some states give your dog a special license and they waive the dog licensing fee.) Some states provide reciprocity -- if your dog is properly licensed in your home state, it’s considered properly licensed there, too. The State criminal laws may not cover employment, so be sure to check.

5. Which law is best to use?

That depends on the situation. If all you want to do is get into the drugstore to buy shampoo, mentioning that you will call the police and have them charged with a crime (state White Cane Law) can be highly effective.

On the other hand, problems involving "systematic discrimination" by a national chain, a state or local government agency, or an educational institution might be better addressed under the ADA. Filing a complaint with a federal agency or filing suit in federal court is a time consuming proposition and requires commitment on your part. You may have to advance costs and attorney fees, even though the court may eventually order that you be paid back.

6. How can I minimize my chances of trouble with access?

Keep your dog immaculate and well groomed and be sure that his or her behavior is quiet and unobtrusive. Carry proper identification for your dog and be willing to provide it in response to a polite inquiry. After all, inappropriate behavior by a pet passed off as an assistance dog creates a bad image and problems for the legitimate assistance dog, so verification of the dog’s status protects us all.

But do be assertive if you are harassed or denied access. Know the laws that support you and be prepared to describe them. Carry a copy of your state law and the ADA regulation in your wallet or your dog’s backpack. If you travel, check the laws of the states you’ll be visiting.

Sure it’s a hassle and non-disabled people don’t have to do that. but remember, the more knowledge you have the more documentation you can provide to demonstrate your dog’s status, the smoother your travels will be. Good luck!

(copyright Ilene C. Caroom, 1994)

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