When Buddy the Wonder Dog isn’t being a furry anxiety anecdote for my son, he and I are a team. We go everywhere together – grocery shopping, to the library, to the gym, and to Ulta in search of the Diva’s special brand of hair conditioner, sold for the price of a month’s worth of organic grass-fed beef.
Buddy almost always wears his service vest when we’re out. By law it’s not required, but it helps business managers understand that Buddy is a working dog. Sometimes, though, I don’t have the vest handy, which was the case earlier this week when my friend and I went for a walk, then decided to pop into a local cafe for coffee.
This spot is a local hipster joint – just a block from the ocean – with awesome organic food and drink. I’d been there with Buddy several times before without incident; I adore the Bittersweet salad there. It’s the type of place that makes you want to grow dreadlocks and get a(nother) tattoo.
On this day, it was near closing time and only a few customers remained. My friend and I walked to the counter and ordered. A minute later, a man approached us swiftly and said loudly, “Excuse me, there are no dogs allowed in this restaurant.”
I was prepared for that. I smiled and said, “I know. He’s a service dog. I’m sorry, I just don’t have his vest today.”
The man – he didn’t identify himself, but I assume he is a manager – kind of scoffed, and said, “Well, I need to see some identification or some kind of paperwork.” I stayed very calm. Buddy, I should mention, was laying quietly at my feet. “No,” I said. “By law, I don’t need to provide you with anything. I’m happy to show you the law on my phone. Would you like me to do that?” I realized I didn’t have my phone, so I borrowed my friend’s and Googled the Americans with Disabilities Act clause regarding service animals. But the man had turned quickly and walked away.
My friend and I sat down with our coffees, again with Buddy at my feet. The man returned, stood over us, and loudly spoke. I noticed other customers staring at me. “Okay, now I get it,” he said. “I have the right to ask you what kind of service dog it is and what he is going to do for you here while you’re at this restaurant.”
I was shocked at the sarcasm in his voice. But I answered him, still very calm. “Buddy is a psychiatric service dog. He helps my son, who has extreme anxiety because he suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder. I’m his trainer, and so I have a right to have him here with me.” The man looked at me with his head cocked, then turned around and walked away without a word.
We could have left and sat outside. At this point, however, I wanted to remain inside on principle. It’s true that I do not need Buddy to navigate daily life (although it helps). But Buddy is my son’s service dog – and since Buddy doesn’t go to school with him, he needs to be stimulated and worked out every day in order for his training to be continually reinforced.
Had the man told me to leave, I would have called the police. Really. Because here’s the problem – I am a strong, confident woman who can articulately voice my rights. Suppose a disabled person with an animal – perhaps a vet with PTSD, or a mother with a child who has autism – had stepped through this restaurant’s doors and been treated with the same haughty suspicion by an employee inexcusably ignorant of the law. Suppose my 11-year-old son had been with me? What would he be learning about tolerance for people who need help navigating society? I can tell you this – if that man had used the same attitude to belittle us in front of my boy, my calm demeanor might have been swallowed by my very sharp tongue and little known ability to shoot laser beams out of my eyes.
Business owners may not agree with the law, but they must follow it. And listen, I understand it can be hard – yes, you can buy service vests online. Yes, I’m sure people occasionally pretend their dogs are service animals, although there are not many canine pets well trained enough to get away with it. But shouldn’t we err on the side of the disabled here? My dog was not disruptive – he was behaving exactly like a service animal should. I did not mind answering politely-asked questions, and had exact, rational answers and explanations. And yet I was treated like unwelcome, undesirable clientele. That, my dear peeps, is discrimination, and it’s against the law. I could argue the man committed a crime under Florida state statutes: Any person, firm or corporation….who denies or interferes with admittance to, or enjoyment of, a public accommodation or otherwise interferes with the rights of an individual with a disability or the trainer of the service animal while engaged in the training of such an animal pursuant to (the law) commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.
I love this particular place; it’s popular for a reason. I struggled with whether to name it here. But I’m not interested in boycotting it or diminishing its reputation. I’d like to go back. Maybe they’ll teach me how to make their delicious kimchee. And maybe Buddy and I could teach them a lesson or two in exchange.