Reality Check: Treatment of service dog owner becomes learning opportunity

    Dexter is a service dog. (Photo credit: WLOS)

    A Hendersonville woman says a restaurant employee told her she couldn't enter with dog. But the animal wasn't just a pet, it was a service dog. Federal law requires people with service animals to be treated the same as any other customer.

    You can't see every disability. Rachel Gay, who is autistic, sat down with her service dog Dexter by her side.

    "Before Dexter, I was suffering from panic attacks, anxiety attacks, OCD attacks kind of playing off of each other," said Gay.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as, "A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual."

    "I was, to be blunt, struggling. I would starve myself. I struggled with self harm. I struggled with a lot of things that a lot of people like to shy away from and not say, because it's like a dirty thing to say," Gay said. "You don't talk about that. The thing is, by not talking about that and by not talking about what's really happening behind the scenes, people can't understand how vital this animal is."

    Gay said Dexter is trained to provide deep pressure therapy.

    "Dexter is a legitimate service dog," dog trainer Kim Brophey said. "We trained him here at the Dog Door."

    For further proof, WLOS filmed Gay getting that training.

    It was no problem for Gay to take Dexter into a Hendersonville coffee shop. At another place, it wasn't so simple.

    "I felt an immense amount of anxiety. I felt like I was being treated as less than, and it was, in a lot of ways, kind of degrading, because it was in front of everybody," Gay said.

    Gay said a Black Rose Public House employee told her she couldn't come inside with Dexter. She said the employee demanded to see paperwork verifying Dexter's status as a service dog.

    That's not a question that can be legally asked. You're only allowed to ask if it's a service animal and what task has it been trained to perform. As for paperwork?

    "There doesn't have to be documentation. There's no national certification. There's no national registry. There is a voluntary North Carolina registry for service animals," Brophey said, adding Dexter is registered with the state.

    Gay said the employee called police.

    "Unfortunately, the officer didn't know my rights," she said.

    We have more than just Gay's word.

    Her fiancee filmed the encounter with the police officer.

    "Under your understanding, is there any documentation for a service dog," Gay's fiancee asked.

    "Yes," the officer replied.

    "It was concerning, because the entire time, it was obvious that he didn't know what he was talking about," Gay said.

    News 13 the issue to Hendersonville Police Chief Herbert Blake. He watched the officer's body camera footage and then took action.

    "We needed to have some training, and we've already implemented the training," Blake said.

    The Black Rose manager said his employee was misinformed, and officials have gone over the law with all the staff.

    Blake said his officer could have handled it better, as well.

    Gay hopes it was a learning opportunity for everybody.

    Blake said this was the first call his department has responded to in at least 10 years about access for a service animal. He also asked the city's Downtown Development director to go over the law with all businesses.

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