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Prepare Public-Facing Employees for Service Dogs

In 2001, more than a decade after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, an employee of a New Mexico hotel tried to prevent Amy Munnell, writer, editor and lifetime wheelchair user, from entering the facility. The reason? Munnell was accompanied by her service dog, Kia.

“I pulled out my law book and explained it to them,” Munnell told SHRM Online, and though the hotel eventually acquiesced, it did not do so graciously and tried to charge her a deep cleaning fee.

“They were really kind of snotty about it. When we came in through the lobby, someone started sniffing,” Munnell said. “I can understand people not liking dogs, but [Kia is] really better behaved than most children.”

Munnell, who uses a motorized chair and has limited use of her arms, relied on Kia for 10 years—until the dog retired—to perform retrieval work, to place her arm on her armrest if it slipped off and to push elevator buttons. Kia’s skill with elevator buttons helped Munnell overcome the fear of elevators she developed after having been trapped for several hours because the buttons were too high for her to reach.

“[Kia] could pay clerks in stores, too, but a lot of times clerks were afraid of her so we didn’t always do that,” Munnell added.

Munnell, Kia and six other pairs of dogs and people spent three weeks training under the guidance of Cochranville, Pa.-based Canine Partners for Life before they began working together. Part of the training involved learning about her legal right to take Kia into public places and what to do if her rights were violated.

That training has come in handy, according to Munnell, who said she has encountered plenty of difficult public-facing employees.

“The only time I had to call the police was at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia,” Munnell said. The hotel staff didn’t see Kia until Munnell had checked in and had gotten on the elevator. “They called up to the room and said, ‘You can’t have that dog up there.’ We said, ‘Yes, we can,’ ” said Munnell. A call to the police and then to the hotel manager cleared the matter up, though not to Munnell’s satisfaction. “I had the right to request an incident report, but the police officer refused to write one up. I was so fed up,” she said, even though the hotel later gave her a few free meals in its restaurant.

Munnell said that most retail stores are fine, though she recalled one store whose employees repeatedly tried to prevent her from coming in even though the manager kept saying she could.

Munnell’s reaction to such experiences is to “write a lot of letters to a lot of corporate offices.”

Restaurants, especially fast-food places, usually pose no problem, Munnell said, though she knows some people who have had problems with ethnic restaurants.

Yet on November 24, 2009 the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that a disabled veteran was "suing McDonald's for $10 million after allegedly being harassed, beaten, and told that he couldn't take his service dog inside a fast food restaurant in New York City." McDonald's denies the allegations, according to the report.

The Law of the Land

According to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) document, a service animal is defined under the ADA as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.”

As such, privately owned businesses that serve the public—such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls and sports facilities—must allow service animals into areas in which customers typically are allowed. DOJ guidance says it is permissible to ask the person who has the animal if it is a service animal required because of a disability, but they cannot ask the individual to provide proof.

The Guide to Assistance Dog Laws, published by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs, provides additional guidance on federal and state laws and can be downloaded from the organization’s web site.

The requirements are somewhat less clear when it comes to allowing employees to bring service animals into the workplace. In this case, employers can refer to guidance on service animals provided by the Job Accommodation Network to determine whether a particular employee’s service animal must be allowed in the workplace as a form of reasonable accommodation.

The number of organizations that are members of ADI has grown from about 20 in 1990 to now over 180 worldwide, according to Corey Hudson, president of ADI North America and chief executive officer for Canine Companions for Independence, a charter member of ADI that has been affiliated with the organization for nearly 25 years.

According to a Nov. 1, 2009, article in The New York Times, the U.S. Army announced in September 2009 that it would spend $300,000 to study the impact of psychiatric service dogs on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.

This means that the number of service dogs visiting places of business is likely to grow.

Well-Trained Helpers

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D., a diversity consultant who is raising her sixth puppy for Canine Companions International (CCI), a company that trains dogs for several assistance roles, was attracted to the life-changing impact of service animals. “You’re creating a partnership that allows a human being to give back and to be the best they can be,” she told SHRM Online. “It’s not a charity, a handout. It’s a hand up” that can help someone go away to college or get a job.

“To me it’s really a diversity issue because it’s allowing someone who is different in some way to participate in the community at large,” she added. “It also allows people to connect to the public.”

Volunteers like Thiederman begin raising dogs for CCI when the animals are eight weeks old. The puppies learn 28 commands while attending classes every two weeks. When they are 15 months old, the dogs begin several months of advanced training with CCI employees who correct any behavioral issues and evaluate each dog to determine its skills. The final stage is two weeks of training with a human partner.

Dogs can “flunk out” at any time, Thiederman said, if they play roughly with other dogs, don’t take commands or fail to stay focused.

People sometimes worry that service dogs don’t get time to just “be a dog,” Thiederman said. But she noted that they get to play in the evening and really love their work. “Their tail starts to wag when their cape comes out.”

Those that pass have “excellent public manners,” according to Thiederman, and know how to go under a restaurant table and take care of other business.

At hotels, “When I take Kia out, I take her to a place nobody walks,” Munnell explained. “If they don’t have such a place, we pick it up and put it in a dumpster. There have been a couple of places where they have tried to charge me a cleaning fee, but I tell them to take it off.”

Need to Ignore Dogs

“Most people appreciate what the dog can do and why I have the dog,” Munnell said. “If I do have any kind of major problem, it’s people being too enthusiastic.

“People don’t think the rules apply to them. I’ve had a few people who have gotten a little snotty with me, but I was doing what was best for my dog,” Munnell said. For example, she has discouraged people from petting Kia. “I met someone who didn’t enforce the no-petting rule, and her dog was a mess.

“Kids are usually better than adults,” she continued, adding that she has heard kids tell their parents not to pet a service dog because it’s working.

“The greatest difficulty dog guide users encounter is public interference,” notes the web site of The Seeing Eye Inc., an organization that has been training Seeing Eye dogs since 1929. “For anyone to take hold of the blind person’s arm or the dog’s harness, or otherwise distract either the dog or its owner, is like grabbing the steering wheel of a car away from its driver.”

Thiederman says the reason people shouldn’t pet working dogs is that “the good things in life need to come to the dog from its alpha figure”—it’s trainer or owner. Yet that doesn’t stop people. “The dog is in a uniform, and people just walk by and touch it. But you would never walk by and touch a civilian dog,” she said.

Preparing Employees

HR departments need to make sure that people managers understand what the law requires and that all employees are trained to follow it. But that doesn’t always happen, Thiederman said. “That information does not get passed on to the front-line people,” who often try to prevent customers from bringing service dogs in only to be contradicted by their manager.

Front-line employees might have concerns about cleanliness, defecation, allergies and disturbing other customers, Thiederman said. “They need to be told that those things are secondary to the person’s right to be there.”

The next step, she said, is making sure that front-line employees know how to handle a customer with a service dog in an appropriate and respectful manner. For example, at a restaurant, Thiederman said, it’s the employee’s job “to take this human being, treat them with respect and put them in a place where the dog can be out of the way of traffic.”

Cabs can be a challenge, according to Thiederman, because culturally the idea of a pet dog or service dog might be foreign to some drivers. Some individuals carry a paper sheet with them to put over the seat in the cab so the dog won’t leave hair.

The California Hotel and Lodging Association created the “We Welcome Service Animals” national campaign to help educate those in the hospitality industry about proper treatment of guests with service animals. Information, educational videos and guidance on how to welcome guests with service animals can be found on the organization’s web site.

Munnell suggests that employers train employees to treat people the same—no matter what—and to ignore service dogs when they come in.

“I like to be dealt with in the manner you would deal with any customer,” she said. “Having the dog, having the wheelchair makes me different, but I’m really not different in terms of the reason I’m in a store. I’m just a customer who wants lunch or a shirt or needs to pay bills. I just get through life a little different than some people.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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