Reality Check: What you can and cannot ask someone with a service animal

Jake is Courtney Schwein's service dog (Courtesy: WLOS)

By law, businesses must treat people with service animals the same as any other customer. But two local service dog owners recently told News 13 that wasn't their experience.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations ("covered entities") can only ask people two questions:

  1. Is the service animal for a disability?
  2. What tasks is the animal trained to perform?

A covered entity's employees can't ask to see documentation, or require the animal to perform its task.

Courtney Schwein was injured while playing soccer in 2014, suffering a concussion and a broken back. Since then, she's recovered from two surgeries and says she has PTSD from the ordeal.

"I had to relearn to walk. I was dormant for two years, bed rest for a couple of months, had to re-teach myself how to run," Schwein said.

She's is training to get back to playing college soccer. She trained one morning with an audience of one: her service dog, Jake.

Jake can brace Schwein if she falls, and he can find exits if he senses she needs to leave.

"He saved my life. He really did," Schwein said.

Recently, Schwein said she received questions about Jake.

"I actually had an experience with a local gym. They thought Jake was fake because they've had so many people come in saying, 'Hey! This is my service dog,' and they did ask some questions that weren't allowed. And it just made me very uncomfortable," she recalled.

Her story isn't unique.

"It was anxiety-producing and stressful, for sure," said Rachel Gay about a service experience with her service dog, Dexter. "But Dexter helped bring my anxiety back down, which was good."

Gay has a 12-week-old service dog, who is learning to do his job. Trainer Kim Brophy said people with emotional support, therapy, and comfort animals make it harder for people with ADA-recognized animals.

"They don't realize the tremendous implications that that has for the disabled that really need service dogs, because it's creating a much higher level of harassment," Brophy, owner of The Dog Door, said.

"It's frustrating when I run into problems like that because other people are ruining it for people that need a service dog," Schwein told News 13.

Service animals provide more than relief. They train to stay by their owner's side and shouldn't be disruptive in public.

After two years off, Schwein hopes to school soccer opponents and teach people about service animals.

Brophy said people shouldn't pet, distract, talk to, or even look at service animals. They're on duty and need to be focused on their owners.

Under the ADA, a covered entity's employees are not legally allowed to ask what kind of disability a person has.

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