Spat leads to debate: is dog a pet or assistant?
A dustup involving a disabled man and his service dog being denied into Grand Junction’s office of the Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday revealed the man has a history of confrontations in the Grand Valley.
Palisade resident John Wright, 54, called The Daily Sentinel and broadcast media Tuesday to report he was denied access to the IRS building with his Catahoula leopard dog, Pragacita, that acts as his service dog.
Wright said he was told upon entering the building at 561 25 Road he couldn’t bring his dog inside. The dog was not marked with a vest or any other identification indicating it was a service dog. Wright did not initially say his dog is a service dog, according to a security guard. He eventually was escorted into the building by local police and retrieved the documents he was seeking.
Wright has faced, but mostly had dismissed, at least 20 misdemeanor charges in as many years, according to records at the Mesa County Justice Center. Some of the charges have been related to animal violations.
Grand Junction Police Department officers have responded to multiple calls over the years at local establishments. Calls include ones in which Wright called to report he was being denied access to a business, and other times businesses have called to report that Wright was being combative, and they wanted him removed from the premises, Police Department spokeswoman Kate Porras said.
In Tuesday’s incident, security guard Pam Workman said Wright became verbally aggressive when he was told he couldn’t enter the building with his dog.
“When I asked, he became belligerent,” she said. “He wouldn’t answer my question. He just started yelling at me.”
After being denied entry, Wright said, he eventually was asked by Workman if his dog was an “aid dog” and was told if it was that kind of dog he could enter with his dog. Wright said he called The Sentinel because he thought workers at a federal facility should be aware of federal law established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that people with service dogs are allowed to conduct business at public facilities.
“It’s been a law for 21 years, and you get all this crap here. It’s amazing,” he said.
Guide dogs that assist visually impaired and blind people are allowed into federal buildings, such as post offices and the Social Security offices. However, under other, separate federal laws, service dogs and their owners need not be allowed inside federal buildings. Service dogs help disabled people and are classified as any trained dog that assists someone with a major disability, not including hearing or visual impairments.
According to the law, businesses can ask whether an animal is a service animal, but they cannot require an owner to produce identification cards for the animal or inquire about a person’s disability. Businesses can inquire about how a service dog helps a disabled person.
Wright produced for The Sentinel a doctor’s note from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center that he has poly articular arthritis, and he is recommended the use of a service animal indefinitely. Wright said his dog is necessary to him at all times because it will alert him if he is about to have a seizure or headaches, and he will be able to take his medicine.
Wright said his 2-year-old dog has identification and a vest, but she chewed off the vest’s attachments, so it couldn’t be secured.
“She’s not a very good service dog,” he admitted.
The law does not require that service dogs be identified by a vest or any other form of proof, said Sharon Davis, co-founder of Colorado Service Dogs, a Colorado nonprofit group that trains dogs to assist people with disabilities. Nor, she said, do service dogs need to be officially certified.
“Isn’t that outrageous?” Davis said.
A business or a public place has legal recourse against a service dog only if it destroys property, growls or acts aggressively toward someone or barks incessantly in a place such as a movie theater.
Davis chuckled when informed about the recent situation outside the IRS office. She said she receives two to three calls a month from people in Grand Junction asking about service dogs. Davis said she tells people there is little they can do about allowing a person and service dog in a public place, but she encourages them to file a police report if a dog or the handler is acting improperly.
Unfortunately some people use untrained dogs for service dogs and “kind of ruin it for everybody,” Davis said.
Davis said people who use dogs trained through her organization outfit the dogs in vests, and owners carry identification because it makes it easier for the general public to determine a person is using a service dog.
A manager at SmashBurger, 115 W. Grand Ave., said employees there called police last year when Wright brought in the dog, and it put its paws on the counter, and he left the dog by a table when he went to the rest room.
Wright said his dog did not put its paws on the counter.
The manager said employees attempted to tell Wright to leave, but he protested that he had a service dog, and the two were allowed to be there. The manager, who did not want her name printed, said Wright later threatened to sue the business. To defuse the situation the restaurant sent him $40 in gift certificates, the manager said.
Wright said he does not provoke these incidents.
“I’m not looking for any trouble,” he said. “If somebody starts screwing with me, I’m going to get angry.”
Porras said police have answered multiple calls in recent years to businesses where Wright and his dog were present, including a Subway, a Village Inn, a SmashBurger, a C&F Food Store and a Burger King.
Grand Junction police officer Steven Weihert responded to the IRS building confrontation Tuesday as well as the aforementioned incident at SmashBurger.
He said Wright could avoid most confrontations by putting an official vest or placard on his dog.
“Then,” Weihert said, “people wouldn’t even question.”
Mary Moore, an ADA specialist with Grand Junction’s Center for Independence, uses a trained service dog. Her dog, Embree, wears a vest, and Moore carries a certification card for the dog.
“In a public setting you’re automatically going to get attention,” she said. “It’s important that the dog is well-groomed and well-behaved. You have to understand you represent not only yourself but a lot of other people with service animals.”
Moore said many people may not even know her dog is with her, as it sits underneath restaurant tables when she goes out to eat and, in general, does not call attention to itself. Still, according to the law, businesses and public places must allow people and their service dogs to go about their business, unless a service dog is causing damage.
“Persons who love their animals and want them with them may not tell the truth,” she said. “We have to take the individual at their word.”