I have had a service dog since 2003; my current dog is my second. In training sessions prior to receiving my first dog my classmates and I were told we would encounter people who would tell us we that because of our dogs we could not enter a store, a restaurant, a theater or virtually any other public place. We discussed polite but firm methods of advocating for ourselves and were given copies of relevant federal laws. We were also told where to find copies of various state laws.
Our instructor was correct. While most stores and restaurants were run by enlightened people, there were those, most often ethnic restaurants run by people who had not been born and raised in the United States, where I was yelled at and told I must take my dog and leave. I learned to bring copies of laws and my dog always wore a “uniform” proclaiming it to be a service dog.
It was hard to learn to stand up for myself in those situations, despite the fact that I can be both convincing and tenacious. After all, these were not business encounters; they were mostly when I was socializing with family and friends. Nobody likes to be the center of attention like that. To enter a restaurant with friends, seeking nothing more than to be seated and served so we can enjoy a meal and each other’s company is an almost universal desire. Then, I am challenged by a restaurant owner or employee, told to take the dog and leave, and the mood of the group changes quickly. The levity of the occasion is never truly recovered and I feel both guilty for being the source of the argument and angry that the argument even occurred.
Perhaps argument is too strong a term. I try very hard to quietly educate the person challenging me. I explain the Americans with Disabilities Act as it pertains to service dog teams. I say service dogs enjoy the same rights as guide dogs for people who are blind, knowing that guide dogs are better understood than service dogs. I reiterate my right to be in the restaurant and my choice not to leave.
I have had a tremendous success rate with this tactic. In fact I have never lost a challenge and I have never been forced to leave a restaurant. That is until last evening when my husband and I went to a new Mediterranean restaurant to celebrate his birthday. I anticipated a problem because of past encounters at similar restaurants. I prepared myself and brought the latest document from the Department of Justice on service dogs.
We approached the hostess stand and I said, “We are so excited to be here tonight to celebrate a birthday with our children who are already here.” While the hostess simply stared at me, the manager/owner standing next to here said, “We can’t have dogs here.”
I gave him a 100 watt smile saying, “I brought some information for you so you can understand what a service dog is and why my service dog is allowed by federal and state law to be here.” I handed him the information. He took it and told me to leave the restaurant while he read the two pages. Rather than spoil my husband’s birthday celebration, I stepped outside and waited.
My husband, sensing how this would end, found our son and daughter-in-law, explained what was happening, paid for the appetizer they’d eaten while waiting, and brought them out. The owner, still clutching the papers, said, “I didn’t say you had to leave, I just want to read this.” He’d had time to read the two pages several times over.
We left to drive to a nearby Indian restaurant where we were treated quite nicely, ate wonderful food and enjoyed family time. We probably paid much more at the Indian restaurant than we would have at the Mediterranean restaurant, but somehow I did not feel bad about giving our money to people who were nice.
Now I must consider what I want to do next. Should I file a complaint with the Department of Justice? Should I hire a lawyer and take the owner of the Mediterranean restaurant to court for violating state law? Should I do both? I am thinking carefully.
What would you do?