Opinions about trained dogs vary

Service dogs on campus are allowed and they help people with more than just vision problems. Photo courtesy of Stock.xchng

Two officers stood in the LA building hallway speaking to a young man with a dog. Although the young man insisted that his animal was a service animal, the officers told him that the animal was not allowed on campus.

There is a fundamental difference of opinion in what constitutes a “service animal” and this difference of opinion leads to confrontations as mentioned above. But why the disparity? Because the definition of a service animal is different to different people, according to Edward Martinelli.

Martinelli is the director of Accessibility Services and he says that this kind of thing happens quite a bit. In fact, he says, this is not even an extreme example of what can happen.

“Sometimes, not on this campus, but on others, people will try to bring weird animals into a public place,” Martinelli said. “Goats, horses… I once heard about a kid bringing a sugar glider onto campus.”

A sugar glider is a type of gliding marsupial, and it doesn’t exactly fit into the Americans with Disabilities Act definition of a service animal.

The Department of Justice’s website defines a service animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”

Other animals do not qualify, whether domestic or wild. A specific distinction is that the animal must be trained to perform a specific task that will “mitigate the effects of a disability.” Dogs that are “used purely for emotional support,” however, are not service animals, according to this official definition.

The ADA was first passed in 1990. Since then, there have been many attempts to broaden the definition of a service animal. These attempts met legislative resistance and only produced the more exact definition that is in law today. In other words, no sugar gliders.

There are certain groups that advocate for more leniency. These groups, unsanctioned by the ADA, independently define what a service animal is. This causes problems, according to Martinelli.

“What we typically bump up against are organizations that put out a statement defining certain animals as ‘service animals,’ but aren’t necessarily approved by the ADA,” Martinelli said. “Then I become the bad guy.”

Martinelli is referring to different groups that offer, for a fee, special tags, collars or vests that are supposed to mark a dog as a service animal; however, not all of these organizations are accepted under the ADA.

Martinelli is not the only one who has to be the bad guy. Campus police have to do the same. In fact, they are usually the first to deal with cases where an unsanctioned animal is on campus.

Sergeant Justin Sprague, a member of the campus police, said that having an animal on campus is not all that unusual. Most of the time, however, it is less about disability and more about making friends.

“Sometimes, we have guys that bring little dogs on campus,” Sprague said. “It attracts girls and they can use it to meet people. It’s a good social tactic.”

These cases are easy to resolve – the student is asked to take the dog home.

Occasionally, officers encounter situations where someone believes they have a legitimate reason for bringing an animal on campus. In these cases, the officers usually just try to direct the individual to Accessibility Services.

“That is what we try to do. We try to educate the people about it,” Sprague said. “We tell them that they need to see Accessibility Services, and usually they comply.”

If that does not work, the campus police have to pursue a legal course such as criminal charges. Those who refuse to comply with the rule regarding animals on campus can receive a misdemeanor charge.

Part of the reason for this difference of definition is that some disabilities are somewhat indefinable.

“Some physical disabilities are easier to justify,” Martinelli said. “But more often than not, support animals that help people with psychological disorders fall into a gray area.”

Martinelli and the rest of the staff at Accessibility Services handle each service animal on a case-by-case basis in an effort to fairly judge each person and their needs. Although they try, the staff cannot allow every applicant.

“We try to help people, but we also have to have a consistently, equally applied policy that is consistent with the ADA and with UVU’s policy,” Martinelli said.