Veteran and his service dog kicked off New Mexico bus

Jonathan Kaupanger
June 27, 2018 - 3:21 pm

Photo by KRQE

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Jesse Gordon was heading to a medical appointment recently with his service dog, Jackson in Albuquerque, NM.  The Vietnam veteran was blocked from boarding a city bus because the driver didn’t think Jackson looked like a service dog.

“The driver of the bus looked at the animal and says, ‘That’s not a service animal,’” says Gordon in an interview with KRQE in Albuquerque.  Gordon said that the bus driver told him that his post-traumatic stress (PTS) was not a recognized disability and that it wouldn’t let him have a vested service dog.

The bus company is investigating the incident, but did say that the bus driver didn’t follow the rules.  Gordon knew his rights regarding his service dog, but do you?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), what distinguishes a service animal from other animals is the training.  For a dog to be a service animal, the task that it’s trained to do must be directly related to the owner’s disability.  Because of this, when traveling with a service animal you may be asked two questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

What they can’t do though is ask about the nature or extent of your disability.  They also can’t require proof that your animal has been certified or force the animal to wear a vest or tag.  They may not ask that the animal perform the task or work that you require. However, if the animal misbehaves and the owner isn’t controlling the animal, businesses have the right to ask that the animal is removed. 

You also need to know what your state says regarding assistance animals and service dog laws.  The laws vary from state to state as do penalties when breaking the law.  In New Hampshire, it’s a misdemeanor for willfully interfering with a service animal.  In California it's the same type of law, but you may also receive a $10,000 fine and go to jail for up to one year.  You can find links to state laws here.

There are about 20,000 service dogs working in the country now.  They are expensive with some costing upwards of $40,000.  Training is extensive, and depending on what they’re trained to do it can take up to two years.  The recent new fad has people buying a vest online and then trying to pass their pet off as either a service or emotional support animal.  Because of this, 19 states now have laws to stop this practice.  These laws make it a misdemeanor to try and pass an untrained dog off as a service animal.  You can be fined $500 per incident too.

When traveling commercially with your service dog, it’s best to contact the company before you arrive.  Some airlines require at least a 48 hour advanced notice if you plan to travel with a service animal.  You may also be required to provide documentation proving your service animal isn’t just a pet.  This can be a letter from a physician or mental health professional. 

For emotional support animals, the rules are a more stringent.  The letter must not be more than one year old and should be on letterhead from a mental health professional.  The letter needs to state that the passenger has a mental health-related disability and that having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the mental health or treatment of the person.  Also included in the letter is a statement that the person writing the letter is a mental health professional and that the passenger is under their professional care.  Airlines are not permitted to require the specific type of mental health disability.

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