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Berkeley: A Pioneer in Welcoming Service Dogs

A new resolution in Berkeley is educating business owners on their obligation to welcome service dogs to any business that is open to the public – as well as letting them know their rights.

“Service Dogs Welcome,” resolution number 65,751-N.S., was adopted by the Berkeley City Council in 2012. All applicants for new business licenses or renewals of existing business licenses will receive an educational document, spelling out the basics of the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that people with disabilities be permitted to bring their service dogs to any areas of the business where members of the public are allowed to go.

Business owners may download and print a sign declaring that service dogs are welcome in their business. In fact, any business owner, anywhere, may use the sign! The document and sign are available on the Berkeley disability compliance website: ci.berkeley.ca.us/disabilitycompliance and additional information is available by phone at 510-981-2489 or TTY 510-981-6345.

Service Dogs Welcome was the initiative of Hazel Weiss, a Berkeley resident who, together with her service dog Virgil, is a disability rights activist. She and Virgil have experienced resistance when entering some local businesses.

Weiss wanted to reach out to businesses in a positive way, both to improve access for service dog teams and to inform business owners of their rights and obligations. Service Dogs Welcome began as a project for her master’s degree in human-canine life sciences, which she earned in 2010 from the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park.

“Service Animals Welcome in Berkeley helps me and Virgil educate businesses who don’t know about service dogs, increase accessibility for people with disabilities. At a broader level, it builds our sense of community and belonging to our Berkeley community,” Weiss said.

A growing problem that troubles both business owners and legitimate service dog users is the increasing number of people who attempt to pass off pet dogs as service dogs. Business owners are often reluctant to confront people, since denying access to a legitimate team can incur a hefty fine. But the fake service dogs may behave inappropriately or threaten customers or staff.

Service Dogs Welcome aims to empower business owners to welcome service dogs without fearing potential damage from unruly dogs – and to ensure people with disabilities the hassle-free public access they and their well-trained dogs deserve.

Service Dogs Welcome spells out the rights of business owners to ask that an unruly or aggressive dog be removed, even if the owner asserts that the dog is his or her service dog. However, a well-behaved service dog under the control of his or her human partner must be allowed into any public business, even a restaurant or hospital. Allergies or fear of dogs, on the part of staff or other patrons, are not valid reasons to deny access; nor is the presence of the business owner’s dog or a guard dog on the premises.

The primary goal of the Service Dogs Welcome program is education for business owners and the public. A phone number on the sign connects callers to the City of Berkeley Disability Compliance Program, where staff can answer questions about the ADA and the service dog law. In addition, the Pacific ADA Center (adapacific.org/index.php) provides free training on ADA rights and responsibilities. The Service Dogs Welcome resolution is a City of Berkeley initiative and is not connected with the ADA Center.

While Berkeley is the first municipality to adopt such a resolution, this initiative can easily be replicated by local and state governments across the Bay Area and around the United States.

Pamela S. Hogle is a freelance journalist and author of the Thinking Dog Blog (thinkingdogblog.com). She is an adjunct faculty member at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, where she is surrounded by service dogs-in-training and the students who teach them to think and solve problems.

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