Riddle has been blind for 22 years, and a walk in downtown Twin Falls would not be possible without her service dog of five years, Blanchett. Riddle can motion to Blanchett to enter any of the stores, and both dog and owner can peruse shelves together or sit at a restaurant.
The Americans with Disabilities Act gives service dogs such as Blanchett the right to enter public buildings, but in Magic Valley the difference between companion animals, service dogs and pets is often misunderstood — or ignored. No, your companion animal can’t go everywhere that Blanchett is allowed, even if you believe the animal’s presence is important to your well-being.
“We are experiencing more people, not just in Idaho, people who bring their pets into the store,” said Marsha Gilford, vice president of public affairs for Smith’s Food and Drug Stores based in Salt Lake City. “They want to put them in the seats of the cart or in their jacket, and it’s not appropriate.”
But the company’s doors are always open to service animals, and Gilford said Smith’s will give the owner-and-dog teams assistance locating or retrieving certain items. “We’re happy to provide additional service to help them shop.”
Blanchett loves to be petted, especially on her belly, her light tan tail swinging. She also loves treats and eagerly gobbles them from Riddle’s outstretched palm. But once the brown leather harness stamped with the words “Guide Dogs for the Blind” is back on, she is all business as she calmly guides Riddle over uneven sidewalks and curbs. Riddle does not allow people to pet Blanchett when she is wearing the harness because she is not a pet, but a dog with a job.
“It’s like flipping a switch, she’s ready for work,” Riddle said.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice recognized only dogs — and some miniature horses — as service animals under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A service animal is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability — like Blanchett is.
Service dogs may guide people who are blind, but they also perform other duties such as alerting people who are deaf, or calming a person with post traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack.
Blanchett is Riddle’s third service dog and was trained at the Guide Dogs for the Blind School in San Rafael, Calif. Though there is no Idaho requirement for Riddle to have tags that identify Blanchett as a service dog, she carries around several tags and papers that do anyway.
“Some have vests, but it is not required,” said Dina Flores-Brewer, advocacy director for Disability Rights Idaho.
Under the ADA, state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all public areas.
In stores or restaurants, Flores-Brewer said, there are few questions that managers or owners are allowed to ask: Is this a service animal? What work or task has it been trained to do? They may not ask about the person’s disability or ask to see documentation or to watch the dog perform its task.
Riddle said she has heard stories of people taking their pets into stores claiming they are service dogs. But Riddle said incidents like this only discredit the training and job that dogs like Blanchett perform.
“Tags are something that should be required,” Riddle said. “I still think the state should issue an odd-color tag to identify them.”
Judy Jones of Twin Falls, who is blind, also uses a guide dog and said handlers take pride in their dogs’ training and obedience.
“The dog is well-behaved and will lay down when asked to,” Jones said.
Even service dogs must always be under the owner’s control, and any damages are the owners’ responsibility. According to the ADA, if a service dog is disruptive it can be asked to be removed, but the owner must be able to continue shopping by another form of assistance.
So what about dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support?
They do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, and the law grants them no right to be in a store.
“Companion animals are not defined or covered under the ADA,” Flores-Brewer said.
So keep those dogs out of the coffee shop and the grocery aisles — unless the business chooses to welcome them.
“We are completely pet-friendly as long as they are not disruptive,” said Mo Black, owner of The Coffee Shop and Lunchbox Deli in Twin Falls. “We even give out lunch meat for treats.”
Woman’s Best Friend
At a downtown crosswalk, Riddle doesn’t immediately step out into the street because she is listening for the hum of engines and the crunch of tires over pavement. She waves the cars along, letting the drivers know they can pass through the intersection. Riddle will cross after the last vehicle drives away, when she knows for sure it’s safe to walk.
“People don’t always stop,” she says.
Riddle motions to Blanchett to cross the street, then uses the dog to steady herself as she steps down from the curb. Once they reach the other side, Blanchett guides Riddle up the high curb and to the sidewalk.
Riddle stops to feed Blanchett a treat for the safe crossing. The dog slurps up the jerky, her mouth in a grin, as they continue their stroll.