Man asked to sit outside after confusion over service animal rules

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MARATHON, Wis. (WSAW) -- A veteran with a service dog walked into Kurt N Jo’s in Marathon on Wednesday. Employees didn’t see a vest on the dog, and asked him to sit outside; now, general manager Lily Ewald wants to make sure he knows that wasn’t supposed to happen.

“They weren’t educated, they weren’t aware—they thought [the dog] would have a vest on,” Ewald explained. “They told the gentleman the dog wasn’t allowed inside; he was welcome to sit outside and we would still serve him.”

Legally, service animals are allowed in nearly every public facility, including restaurants. Ewald knew the rules, but she says it was too late once she was made aware of the situation and tried to rectify it and ask the customer back inside, who showed her a card for the animal.

“He came back in, and he was still upset, and he said ‘Nevermind, we’re not going to eat there,’” she said. “The waitress tried to apologize, but the damage was already done.”

Ultimately, Ewald says she wants to take responsibility for what happened, and raise awareness for others who might not know the laws.

“I failed him in that way, not letting my employees know that they need to just treat him as another customer as soon as you say, ‘Is this a service dog?’ and they say, ‘Yes,’ then at that point you just treat them as any other.”

Ashlee Bishop, a humane officer for the city of Wausau as well as Everest Metro, says law prevents people from asking the reason for a service animal.

“There are only two questions that are legally allowed to be asked,” Bishop explained. “Is this animal providing a service, and what service is this animal providing?”

However, Bishop says that there’s a lot of confusion between service animals—which can only be dogs or, in rare cases, miniature horses--and emotional support animals.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals.” States can broaden service animal definitions, but in Wisconsin, Bishop says anxiety and depression aren’t considered issues that are acceptable for services provided by animals.

The ADA lists acceptable services as helping blind people, deaf people, pulling wheelchairs, protecting people with seizures, reminding people with mental illness to take prescription medication, calming people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other duties.

“They have to be trained to provide that service,” Bishop explained—but that’s where the issue can get even more confusing. Bishop says there’s no national registration to track service animals, and it’s very difficult to prove a service animal is, in fact, a service animal, since there’s no certification program that a dog must pass to qualify. Essentially, training is required, but proof of that training doesn’t have to exist, Bishop says.

If a service animal starts putting others in danger, like biting or aggressive barking, the law allows that it can be asked to leave. But otherwise, the dog can’t be denied access or refused service due to allergies, fear or health codes. One exception to that is operating rooms or burn units where the animal could compromise a sterile environment, the ADA stipulates.

But for Ewald, she just wants to make sure this doesn’t happen again. “We’d definitely love to buy the gentleman dinner, in hopes to remedy the situation and just start over with him again,” she said. Ewald adds that her employees have now been briefed on the law.