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A Brigadoon Service Dog Walks into a Grocery Store - By Hayat Norimine (2018)

You’ve seen the signs. The international prohibition symbol with the figure of a dog in the center. “No pets except service animals only” posted on the front door. Sometimes there’s an illustration of a person in a wheelchair, aided by a dog in a vest, with the words: “Service animals specifically trained to aid a person with a disability are welcome.” But chances are, the real dog isn’t wearing a vest. (It doesn’t have to.) And the real person isn’t in a wheelchair. (They don’t have to be.) Most people with illnesses or disabling conditions have hidden ones, including psychiatric disabilities, heart conditions, or being prone to seizures.

Who does lie about having a trained service dog? Hard to tell. According to public health records in King County, few health code complaints cite suspicion that the owner passed his or her pet as a service animal. More often, customers took issue with the presence of dogs in general. They often say it’s clear they’re not service animals. And complaints in King County have stayed pretty steady since at least 2015.

  • 85 Complaints filed with King County about health code violations involving dogs in 2017.

  • 2 Complaints filed with Seattle about businesses not accepting a service dog in 2017.

  • $500 Starting in January 2019, fine in Washington state for falsely claiming a service dog.

In many of those complaints, business employees appear confused by the ADA law or are unaware of the health code; many complainants said employees told them they were dog-friendly, violating state Health Department regulations. Sometimes they don’t care enough to enforce the pet policy—several cited restaurant owners bringing their own dogs. Other times they don’t understand what they’re allowed to do, claiming that they’re not permitted to ask. And accusers themselves show they don’t know how to tell whether a dog is a service animal, citing misbehavior or the lack of a vest.

Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst at the Washington State Human Rights Commission, fields technical assistance calls to the commission and estimates that about 30 percent of the questions she receives relate to service animals.

She says that while parts of the new state law are good—it clearly defines a service animal as a dog or mini-horse, providing some much-needed clarity to establishments on that front—other aspects could be problematic. In particular, the law allows punishment when someone “should have known” that a pet didn’t fit the definition of a service animal.

“Who’s going to decide what a person knew or should have known?” Lindstrand says. The fact that the law remains vague on who’s in charge of ultimately penalizing someone makes her uneasy. She points out that those with intellectual disabilities may not be able to understand the distinction and could truly believe their pet is a service animal.

Some dogs, attuned with their owners, can start to sense when their heart rates rise, or if they’re about to have an episode.

To fine that vulnerable population, which may not have the money to pay, could spell trouble. Especially because under the ADA workers are still only allowed to ask whether the animal is required for a disability and what tasks it can perform. If a person responds, and it sounds like a lie, someone can still call the police.

Making the distinction of a service dog can be confusing even to those without intellectual disabilities. There is no federally recognized certification process, and scams online allow people to register their pets as service or emotional support animals without any requirements. Anyone can also buy a service dog vest. But federal law states that what distinguishes a service dog from, say, an emotional support dog is proper training. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights investigates complaints of ADA violations by requiring proof of disability and need for an animal from a medical professional, according to OCR spokesperson Roberto Bonnaccorso; the city doesn’t require proof of training. And that can involve a years-long process, from the time the pup is eight weeks to two years old at graduation. And even then, no dog is perfect.

Buttercup lay crouched in the middle of the floor, her mouth wide open, her eyes fixed on the humans entering the room, tail swinging left to right like a metronome. A trainer guided the stocky, two-year-old yellow Labrador—smart enough to switch off the lights, close doors, retrieve objects, carry her own leash—around the room to showcase her skills. Under commands, Buttercup dropped back to the floor.

But Buttercup, for all her seemingly preternatural intelligence and skill, is still a dog. We were reminded of that when, in a moment of self-indulgence, she rolled around on her back happily, her stomach exposed. “No, no,” her trainer admonished. “You’re not allowed to do that in public.”

Brigadoon Service Dogs in Bellingham is one of just three nonprofits in Washington state accredited by Assistance Dogs International, an organization that establishes standards for training service dogs. The small remote office is currently instructing about 30 dogs, many of them housed in their kennels in another building, a team of superheroes ready for deployment. Coup, a nearly two-year-old black lab, will go to a girl with anxiety and a developmental disability; Cinder, a one-year-old smooth collie, will be a hearing dog; Ruby, a blue German shepherd contracted for training, will help her owner with mobility issues.

Mr. Chips, a 60-pound poodle, was raised at Brigadoon and is now owned by one of its employees, Ariane Denham. From 2010 to 2011 Denham served in the U.S. Army’s 160th Forward Surgical Team in Afghanistan, where she treated traumatic injuries and often worked 48-hour shifts on the nursing floor. She still remembers mortar fire at a nearby camp and the Afghan teenage girl she helped who needed a full facial skin graft. (Denham says the girl’s brother threw boiling hot water on her when she expressed wanting an education to become an English translator.) When she returned to the U.S., Denham had problems with crowds and loud noises, and certain smells—alcohol prep pads with blood, for one—would trigger her anxiety and the sudden impulse to leave.

It took years for her to admit to herself that she had PTSD. She first tried Zoloft for her depression. But she grew apathetic. She gained weight. So in August 2016, she decided to apply for a service dog at Brigadoon. And just three months later, she got a call back; they had found a potential match. Mr. Chips can distract her when she’s in distress by nudging her arms with his nose and demanding her attention. He can also face the opposite direction to be an extra set of eyes for what’s happening behind her, and his company in moments when she wakes up from a nightmare helps her calm down quickly.

All of Brigadoon’s dogs are protected under federal law to accompany their owners into any establishment. But getting a service dog is an investment—Denham says each dog at Brigadoon costs about $30,000 to $40,000, most of it subsidized by the organization with $10,000 left for the civilian to pay. If you’re a military veteran, it’s free. It can cost upwards of $50,000 for more rigorously trained dogs used for a more demanding service, like guide dogs for the blind, though organizations often provide them free of charge.

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