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Service dog handlers say pet dogs causing issues in local stores
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle - 9/24/2022
Sep. 24—CHEYENNE — Service dog handlers in Cheyenne say they feel unsafe in some local stores because of an apparent unwillingness to regulate the behavior of pet dogs.
These handlers, who use service dogs specifically trained to perform tasks related to disabilities, said in interviews with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that this alleged hesitance to remove a disruptive or threatening dog can be very detrimental to the wellbeing of both the service dog and its handler.
Cassandara Eden is legally blind and uses her 4-year-old yellow lab, Quasar, to navigate the world. But since her move here from Washington state less than two months ago, she's experienced "upwards of 20" instances where a dog that appears to be a pet has been aggressive toward her and Quasar inside a store.
"The store owners seem to think that they don't have any protections under the law, which is not true," Eden said. "And when I presented the problem to them, they said, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do.'"
Eden and others said some store owners or employees may refuse to enforce a "no pet dogs" policy simply because they like dogs, or may fail to remove a misbehaving dog because they fear a lawsuit.
Because of the repeated issues and feeling unsafe, Eden said she now has to "make some very harsh decisions" about where to physically go shopping with Quasar. Often, she'll send her children to the store or do curbside pickup.
"I should just feel free to go do my shopping without worrying about stuff like that," Eden said.
More than an inconvenience
In some cases, repeated run-ins with aggressive dogs or abuse from people may cause a dog to have to be "washed," or removed from service. Cheyenne resident Mistee Cherry said this was the case for her most recent service dog, a 150-pound Newfoundland named Winnifred, that helped her stay safe in public when dealing with the effects of severe panic disorder.
Cherry currently doesn't have a service dog, which means her ability to go out into the world and perform tasks for herself is sometimes limited.
It can cost thousands of dollars to train a service dog. Dogs that are adopted already trained from organizations can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Natasha Chilton, a Cheyenne resident and service dog handler, has had experiences similar to those of Eden and Cherry. Chilton also trains service dogs for others.
"I've had incidents where they've just, like, lunged and barked at my (former) dog, or I've had them just full-on break out of their leash or their collar and just come over and just full-on attack him, and I have to break up a fight," Chilton said. "I've lost count of how many times (my former dog) has been attacked."
Chilton said she's been working her new dog, mobility and medical alert dog Bashir, for only about a year. A 19-month-old Rough Collie, Bashir has not yet been attacked. Chilton said she doesn't take him out as much as her previous dog, though, because she's afraid of it happening.
K9s 4 Mobility CEO Michelle Woerner said her organization hears about experiences like Eden's "constantly." The complaints are typically about large chain stores, rather than local businesses, she said.
K9s 4 Mobility is a Cheyenne nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with people who have visual, physical, mental or behavioral disabilities. The organization also offers a program for people who want to train their own service dog with the supervision of a certified trainer, which is often a more affordable option.
While not the only store the women cited, both local Walmart stores came up as problem locations in interviews with Eden, Cherry and Chilton.
Responding to a request for comment, a Walmart spokesperson said in a statement: "Walmart welcomes service animals in our stores. We recognize the important role they play in many of our customers' lives, and we want all of our customers to have safe and enjoyable shopping experiences."
Walmart did not answer specific questions about whether employees are trained in laws pertaining to service dogs and how to identify legitimate service dogs, or what that training looks like.
The spokesperson also referred a WTE reporter to a nearly identical statement on the company's website. This statement adds that service animals "as defined by the ADA" are welcome in its stores, and says, "We do not allow pets in our stores."
Federal and state law
The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in July 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, was an attempt to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the U.S. The law lays out clear guidelines related to service animals, which can be found in an extensive question-and-answer format at ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.
The ADA currently defines a service animal as "a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability." (A separate provision allows miniature horses to be considered service animals, if individually trained to assist a person with a disability.)
It requires that "the task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability." The law permits service animals generally to go wherever their owner goes, and makes it so entities with "no pets" policies must allow in service dogs.
Store owners or employees legally may ask only two questions of a service dog handler. The first is: "Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?" And the second is: "What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?"
Eden, Cherry and Chilton said asking these two questions are the first step in protecting legitimate service dogs and their handlers in stores. They added that service dogs can be readily identified by their quiet, focused behavior, and will be totally under control and focused on their handler.
Of course, someone with a dog that has not been trained as a service dog may refer to them as such, or be ready to say what task the dog performs for them.
"Unless the dog misbehaves, there's really not a lot of room for them to excuse the dog. Where the problem comes in is where the stores are not excusing dogs that are misbehaving," Woerner said. "So, the dogs that are lunging, barking, running around pulling their person all over the place, jumping on meat counters, stealing food or riding in carts — no service dogs should be in a cart. Those are the people that the stores should be excusing and saying, 'You know, your dog's misbehaving.'"
Under the ADA, service animals that are out of control or misbehaving can be asked to leave a location. Woerner said service dog handlers are taught to remove their dogs from a place if they become too distracted to work effectively.
The ability of service dogs to accompany handlers in areas that are usually pet-unfriendly is "a right that can always be taken away. I mean, the laws can be changed, and we certainly don't want that to happen," Woerner said. "But it's like any other law — people are going to take advantage of it."
In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law that made intentionally misrepresenting an animal as a service animal "for the purpose of obtaining any of the rights or privileges" set out by state law a misdemeanor, and the perpetrator may be fined $750.
Woerner said that after the law was passed, however, groups like hers received feedback from law enforcement that the law wasn't enforceable.
Capt. David Janes with the Cheyenne Police Department made this point in a Friday interview with the WTE.
"It is a challenge for us, because if someone claims it's a service dog, ADA rules are pretty specific: They don't have to prove that it's a service dog," he said. "All they have to say is, 'It's a service dog,' and we're also not allowed to ask what their disability is, or those sorts of things. So it makes it very difficult to actually enforce anything as far as whether it is a service dog or not service dog."
A gray area
Store owners or employees cannot "request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability" under the federal law.
The ADA doesn't require service animals "to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness." A mandatory registry for service animals is also prohibited under the ADA, though governmental entities or other organizations may offer voluntary registries.
Janes said he was not aware of any recent incidents regarding aggressive pet dogs in stores having been reported to CPD. Capt. Kevin James, undersheriff for the Laramie County Sheriff's Office, said he was also not aware of his agency receiving calls of this nature.
But based on a dog owner's behavior, recourse may be available in some instances, Woerner said.
"If a dog is misbehaving and the store says, 'We need you to take this dog out because it's not behaving,' and that person causes a fuss, they can call law enforcement, and law enforcement will get them for disturbing the peace, basically," said Woerner, who is the vice chairperson of the Cheyenne Mayor's Council for People with Disabilities.
Eden, a braille transcriber instructor, said that her "first recourse is always education." She said a smartphone app from National Federation of the Blind can help service dog handlers find out what laws and protections they have in each state. She also recommended the organization Guide Dog Users Inc. as a source of support for handlers.
The former resident of Washington state was caught off guard by the number of issues she's had since moving to Cheyenne, as pet dogs largely weren't allowed in stores there, outside of pet stores. Woerner, who used to train service dogs in Kansas, said she thinks this type of problem may be more prevalent in Wyoming and Colorado because of the small number of service dog training organizations.
K9s 4 Mobility is the only service dog training organization in the Wyoming accredited by Assistance Dogs International, and there are only two such organizations in Colorado, Woerner said.
Woerner and the service dog handlers say teaching people how to identify a service dog, and that they're able to remove misbehaving dogs from a store, is the most important way to improve things.
"I feel like educating stores and educating the general public is probably a start to stopping the issue, for sure," Chilton said.
Eden's next step will likely be reaching out to Walmart leadership and "asking them to review their pet policies and allow their workers a little bit more proactivity" when it comes to following federal and state law.
She said she may eventually pursue legal action against stores that refuse to remove aggressive dogs, if it becomes necessary — not only to protect Quasar, but her human loved ones, as well.
"If the grandkids run in front of the two dogs, trying to protect my dog, my grandkids are gonna get hurt," Eden said.
Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.
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