Categories: Bay Area

Some San Franciscans say 'doggone it' to new rules about service animals

Matt Traywick credits his relationship with his dog, Charlie, for saving him from spiraling into depression and locking himself inside his Tenderloin studio. But the pair’s companionship is no longer protected by federal disability guidelines, even though Traywick’s psychiatrist said the relationship is essential to Traywick’s well-being.

Stricter Americans with Disabilities Act rules that took effect in March allow businesses to refuse service to people whose animals are not dogs or small horses providing approved forms of service.

The new regulations changed the definition of what constitutes a “service animal.” Formerly a vague definition stating that service animals merely perform a task for someone with a disability, which could include serving as an emotional companion, the rule now says they must be rigorously trained dogs or small horses assisting people with physical complications, not emotional ones.

Federal officials declined a request for comment on the new guidelines. But the rule change is seen as a response to the proliferation of service animals in the years since passage of the act. That proliferation has sometimes caused problems for businesses scared to refuse service to people with problematic animals.

For instance, San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control issues hundreds of service-dog tags each year to anyone possessing a note from a physician or therapist.

“We don’t use discretion when they come to us with an application,” Animal Care and Control spokeswoman Rebecca Katz said.

The new regulation affects an entire community of people. Katz said The City abides by state guidelines that allow alternative definitions of a service animal.

But while municipal buildings likely won’t tighten their service animal guidelines, private businesses such as restaurants, theaters and doctor’s offices have a right to do so.

Katz said she attended a meeting with about 80 people last week who had alternate definitions of a “service animal,” such as a bird that was trained to retrieve things for its owner.

“My biggest worry is that people who really need their animals and are being responsible are not protected,” Katz said.

However, Guide Dogs for the Blind spokeswoman Joanne Ritter welcomed the new regulation. She said it all comes down to making sure the rules better serve people with disabilities and the general public.

“Some of the dogs can be unruly or not behaved or out of control in a public area,” Ritter said. “It’s not a question of whether you’re displeasing someone, it’s how many people are you displeasing.”

But Traywick, who said he has lost 20 pounds from walking around his neighborhood since Charlie “picked him” in January at The City’s animal shelter, said it is unfair that irresponsible service-animal owners forced the federal government to change its guidelines.

“I just think there are a lot of people that don’t need service animals but say they do,” Traywick said.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

Animal assistants

New Americans with Disabilities Act regulations say businesses don’t have to accommodate a person with a service animal unless it’s a dog or small horse specifically trained to help the owner, who must have a physical disability.

March 15: When stricter ADA laws were applied
About 500: Dogs registered in San Francisco every year as service animals

Animals no longer protected by the ADA:

  • Birds
  • Monkeys

The City’s stance

  • Continue to allow any assisting animal on all municipal property

Sources: ADA,  Animal Care and Control

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