Sue Garlick needs to connect with her students, but it’s not always easy. As a special education teacher in Cortez, building a rapport with her students can be the difference between effective education and a chaotic classroom.
Now, after two decades of teaching, Garlick has found a means of connecting with her students that no human could facilitate: her dog, Mochi.
Mochi is a service animal, a 7-month-old labradoodle with 100 hours of training. He fills a specific role: helping to calm students who are overwhelmed and providing a means of social connection that does not come naturally to her students with autism.
“It has given me a whole new opening with the kids,” Garlick said of having her dog in the classroom with her. “I used to have to work hard to build a rapport with them.”
Mochi is one of countless service animals in the country – including canines and mini horses – that have been trained to perform specific tasks for people with a disability. These animals are not to be confused with support animals, which may help an individual with stress or depression but not with a specific task, said Martha Mason, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independence, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
For people with disabilities, these animals can be a lifeline that must be with them at all times, Mason said. That means service animals often travel with their owners into restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments that otherwise don’t allow pets. Dogs are often desensitized to those environments, something Sue Mooney does as a service animal trainer.
“Durango is such a dog-friendly town that we can bring them to restaurants, library and doctors offices,” Mooney said.
While service animals are not a new phenomenon – think seeing-eye dogs – it seems the general public has taken notice, and they want in on the privileges that come with owning a service animal, Mason said.
A Google search for “service animals” produces ads for registering a pet as a service animal. Some local restaurant owners have expressed concern about patrons claiming they have a service animal when they don’t just so the dog can gain entry into the establishment. Some people claim to have a service animal so they can take the animal into hotels, onto airplanes and even into court hearings.
“People like the idea because I guess it’s cool to have a service dog,” Mason said. “It’s cool to be able to take your dog in a restaurant with you.”
A lot of the confusion around the issue has to do with the distinction between service animals and emotional support animals, a line that is often confused by the public and business owners, Mason said.
The distinction is this:
A service animal performs an action for an individual who cannot do it themselves. That could be anything from guiding a person who is blind to alerting someone with diabetes if their blood sugar is too low or high. And service animals, per Colorado law, can be a dog or a mini horse, and nothing else.
To further complicate the matter, there is no national or state registry for service animals, meaning there is no state-sponsorship to verify the legitimacy of a service animal, Mason said. And just because a dog is wearing a service animal vest doesn’t mean it qualifies as such, she said.
“It’s that physical act of doing something for the person that makes it a service animal,” Mason said.
Emotional support animals have different allowances under the law. While emotional support animals do not count as pets when it comes to housing – meaning landlords cannot charge fees for them – they do count as pets when it comes to public spaces. That means restaurant owners can deny entry of an emotional support animal because the animal is legally a pet, not a service animal, Mason said.
Business owners skeptical of whether an animal is a service animal can legally ask two questions: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability and what specific task does the animal do for you. But these questions are restrictive, said Joseph Marinan, manager of the Grassburger on Main Avenue. While the restaurant promotes itself as dog-friendly, health codes keep animals from being anywhere food is prepared or eaten.
“We love being pro dog and dog friendly, but it does cause great confusion when people assume that dogs are allowed in the restaurants,” Marinan said. “It’s an ongoing battle.”
For Durango Natural Foods Co-Op, the problem isn’t with service animals but with people who object to them being in the grocery store, said Kamaljit Punia, marketing and outreach manager. All store management can do is explain the allowances under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There is this growing trend,” Punia said of people with service animals. “For us, it’s mostly just doing damage control to our customers who don’t have support animals.”
While businesses do not have the authority to outright reject a service animal, they can ask a misbehaved animal to leave, even if it is a service animal.
“I’ve gone around downtown Durango, and some of the stories that I’ve heard have been pretty ridiculous” Mason said. “Someone said it was their service dog and the dog was on her table eating off her plate. There’s no way that was a service dog.”
For people with service animals, those who abuse the system only make it more difficult for those who actually need an animal to help them, Mason said.
“People are not doing the disability community any service saying they have a service animal (when they don’t),” Mason said.
While Garlick said she doesn’t take her dog, Mochi, out in public situations – his place is in the classroom – she said people who claim their animal is a service dog when it is not do a disservice to people who really need it.
“It is disheartening to think there are some people who would go out in the community and say that the animal has a job that the dog doesn’t do,” Garlick said. “It would be great if people could be really honest about what they need.”