Service animals play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of their owners.
That’s why federal and Minnesota laws exist that provide protections to people with service animals. The majority of such animals are dogs, though in some cases they can be miniature horses.
Section 363A.19 of the 2022 Minnesota Statutes says it’s “unfair discriminatory practice” for owners, operators or managers of hotels, restaurants, public conveyances or other public places to prohibit a person with a disability from taking their service animal into the public place or conveyance to aid them with their disability. Service animals should be properly harnessed or leashed so the owner may maintain control of it.
“An assistance dog — it fundamentally changes someone’s life,” said Jeff Johnson, executive director of Can Do Canines in New Hope, the largest service dog provider in Minnesota.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states service animals have been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.”
Those tasks must directly relate to the person’s disability. That means emotional support or companion animals are different from service animals because the former don’t perform specific tasks.
“They’re awesome. They’re wonderful tools, and they really help people,” Johnson said of emotional support animals (ESAs). “But they are fundamentally different from an assistance dog, because they’re not trained specifically for one or more tasks.”
Common tasks service dogs perform include but aren’t limited to the following:
- Hearing important sounds for people who are deaf.
- Guiding people who are blind.
- Offering mobility assistance for people who have difficulty moving on their own.
Smelling blood sugar levels of diabetic people to alert them if those levels drop.
- Responding when their owner experiences a seizure due to epilepsy.
David Fenley, ADA director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, agreed that there’s confusion between service dogs and ESAs and that the latter are still important for people with disabilities.
“ESAs, unlike service animals, are not allowed in places of public accommodations that don’t allow dogs,” Fenley said. “If the brewery allows dogs, bring any dog you want, that’s fine. But with restaurants and health codes, only service animals are allowed in.”
Service dogs don’t require documentation of their service animal status, even if they’ve undergone professional training. Fenley said that’s because no government entity recognizes any such documentation.
Even though vests or capes that say “Service Animal” exist and are easy to purchase, simply putting one on a dog doesn’t make that dog a service animal.
A business owner or employee is able to ask two questions of a service animal owner in situations where it’s not clear the dog is a service animal: “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
Fenley said those questions are allowed because they’re specifically designed to get the minimal amount of information needed by an enforcement entity, such as law enforcement, without violating a disabled person’s privacy.
Trained service dogs, however, are well behaved and typically stay next to their owner’s side when in public. Signs a dog may not be a trained service animal include erratic behavior, disobeying its owner’s commands or getting easily distracted.
“If the dog’s on a 20-foot leash running around, that dog’s not performing its tasks; it’s just a dog out having a good time,” Fenley said.
The ADA requires service dogs to already be trained to do their designated tasks before being allowed in public with their owner. In Minnesota, however, service dogs in training are also allowed to be with their owners in public.
Federal law doesn’t require service dogs to be professionally trained — owners can train their dogs themselves if they’re able — but professional organizations such as Can Do Canines facilitate the process of connecting people with disabilities with trained dogs.
Dogs at Can Do Canines, which also breeds or rescues most of the dogs it trains, undergo a process that spans about two to two-and-a-half years from their birth to when they’re placed with an owner.
Much of that time period involves extensive instruction with professional trainers as well as inmates at seven prisons across Minnesota and Wisconsin. After getting matched with a client, the dog spends the final few weeks of training with that person and a trainer.