(Jason E. Silvers/Tribune)
Denise Hemken and her niece, Alissa Hinz, both own service dogs, which are defined according to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Some dogs are trained in programs and others by their owners.
Examples of work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack or performing other duties.
Hemken, a military service member, owns Ebony, a military service dog that even has its own rank. Hinz, who suffers from seizures, gets help from her service dog, Isabella.
Both women are trying to get more information to the public about service dogs. They have realized many people are not aware of their purpose and the federal law that protects people with disabilities partnered with service animals. They said service dogs are working animals, not pets.
"It's about education," Hemken said. "Service dogs are not pets. They need to be there, health-wise."
According to the law, disabled owners of service dogs are protected under the ADA, which generally gives them the right to be accompanied by their service animal anywhere the general public is allowed, including local and state government services buildings, public accommodations and commercial facilities. The care or supervision of a service animal is solely the responsibility of his or her owner.
Under the federal code, businesses are permitted to deny access to service dogs that are not behaving properly. They may also be excluded if the presence of the animal constitutes a fundamental alteration of the business or poses a direct threat. People with service dogs are not required to pay any additional fees on account of the service dog, though the owner is responsible for any damages caused by the dog.
A person with a service dog cannot be refused service at a business or asked to remove the animal unless it is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if the dog is not housebroken. Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service dogs in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises, the law states.
Staff of a business may ask if the dog is a service animal required because of a disability and work or task the dog has been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task, the law states.
Violators of the ADA can be required to pay monetary damages and penalties.
Both Hemken's and Hinz's dogs wear blue harnesses identifying them as service dogs.
The blue color lets other people know there is a medical necessity for the animal, Hemken said.
Under ADA, service dogs must be harnessed, leashed or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal's work or the individual's disability prevents using the devices.
Hemken and Hinz also wanted to stress that service dogs should be treated as working animals while in public.
"She (Ebony) does her job," Hemken said. "She works for a living ... They're not going to do anything bad, they're just going to do their job."
For more information on the law concerning service dogs, visit www.ada.gov.