Since You Asked: 'Therapy dogs' don't belong in restaurants

I was at a Medford restaurant on Friday and saw a woman carrying a small dog into the restaurant — I'm allergic to dogs and they're not supposed to be in restaurants anyway. The owner said the dog was a "service dog" and it was wearing a vest, but she wasn't blind, deaf or physically disabled — she called it a "therapy dog."

It seems people could just make up their own service vests. How do you know whether it's a legitimate service dog or just somebody who doesn't want to leave their dog at home? Do the dogs have to have an official vest? It seems such dubious purposes for service dogs diminish the importance of real service dogs for those who really need one to get around physically.

— Matt C., Medford

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives few options for restaurants and other business to verify whether a dog performs a service to accommodate their owner's disability.

"This is a huge issue all over the country," said Robin Dickson, chief executive officer of Dogs for the Deaf in Central Point. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act is open, which leads to a lot of abuse. Businesses are afraid to say anything because they're afraid they'll be sued."

But here are two questions any business or community member may ask under the law:

1. Is your animal a pet?

2. What does your animal do for you?

"The dog has to have a skill: it guides you, pulls your wheelchair or alerts you of seizures," Dickson said. "It can't be just that it makes you happy."

"Dogs that provide companionship are very valuable, but those dogs don't have public access under the law," she added.

A vest and identification card is not required, and businesses may not ask to see one before allowing a person with a service animal to enter the premises. However, many companies such as Dogs for the Deaf issue official-looking vests and cards and encourage owners to show those items as a courtesy to businesses.

Service animal owners also have responsibilities to maintain their animals' public access, including keeping them clean and well-behaved.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We get so many questions we can't answer them all, but we'll try.

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