WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - What was supposed to be a trip to the Port City for a job interview turned into one woman leaving Wilmington frustrated and unhappy.
"The receptionist was very rude. She told me I needed paperwork for my service dog, which is illegal for her to say," Katelyn Rego said.
On Saturday night, Rego, her partner and her dog Zellie tried to book a motel room at the Carolinian Inn but were turned away because of her 3-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier service dog.
"I know the law and I know my rights. I went ahead and called the cops," Rego said.
Rego is right. According to state and federal law, The Americans with Disabilities Act does not allow any business to request documentation to prove that a dog is a service dog.
"According to the ADA, a service dog is no different than a wheelchair, walker, cane, or crutch," said Pat Hairston with Canines for Service.
Hairston and her husband own Canines for Service, an organization that trains service dogs. They are experts on access laws.
"By law, there are only two things a business can ask: Is the dog a service dog and what tasks does it perform?" Hairston said.
Rego tried to tell the clerk at the Carolinian about the laws and questions she could legally ask.
"I would have told them that. I have been diagnosed with PTSD so my dog does deep pressure therapy, anxiety alert," Rego said. "She stops panic attacks. She wakes me from night terrors, sleep apnea and stops me from self-harm."
NC Statute 168-4.2 states if a person is disabled, they must show a registration tag issued by the Department of Health and Human Services with a registration number showing the animal is trained.
However, Rego is not a state resident. We ran this question by Hairston who told us, in this case, federal law would always prevail.
Wilmington police responded to the Carolinian but did not enforce the law, which Hairston can be enforced with a citation.
"The two officers that showed up told me it was a civil issue and they had other things they needed to be doing," Rego said. "Because these officers didn't know the law, they chose not to enforce it, which is just crazy. I may as not have a service dog if they won't enforce what is a state and federal law."
According to the ADA law and confirmed by Hairston, Rego did not need to have a vest on the dog, but she did.
"Under the ADA, service dogs are not required to have paperwork credentials or wear a vest," Hairston said. "They should be looked at by private businesses as the same thing as a wheelchair, walker, crutch or cane, except they are a breathing animal."
"My dog is literally my life-saving device that I need to survive," Rego added.
WECT spoke to the motel receptionist who wished not to be named on Monday. She said, "We always allow service animals to stay at our hotel, but we always ask for the necessary paperwork."
WECT left her a copy of the law. She said she was not aware that documentation was not required.
WECT also reached out to the Wilmington Police Department which stated it is looking into the issue, the state and federal laws, and also mentioned that it's always up to the officer's discretion on if a misdemeanor is cited.
Hairston said private businesses need more education on how to spot a working service dog to help people with disabilities. She notes that a troubling trend sweeping the country is people claiming regular pets as emotional support, comfort or therapy animals.
"A service dog must go through thousands of hours of training and they must be able to perform tasks," Hairston said. "That is something the business can ask of the person, but if someone states 'The dog makes me happy,' that is not a task, and they should not have legal access like service dogs."
According to the ADA, some state and local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. Hairston says these emotional support animals lessen the credibility of working, trained service animals.
"When you are dealing with people that are taking their emotional support animal out in public, they are truly uneducated about what an emotional support animal is and what it does," Hairston said. "It does not have the same level of training as a service dog."
Hairston provided several tips on how businesses can spot what she calls a "fake."
- An ill-behaved dog
- One begging for food at a table
- A dog being fed people food
- A dog that barks or is extra vocal
- A dog that lunges or charges at a person
- A dog stinky, smelly or unkempt
- A dog that is socializing with people.
"It's like the old adage, these dogs should be like children: quiet, seen and not heard," Hairston said.
Hairston says it's unfortunate how easy it can be to claim a dog is an emotional support animal.
"You can go on any website online and purchase a vest, or a dog certification for anywhere from $50 to a couple hundred bucks, but it means nothing," she said. "The dog is simply just a dog."