Families Struggle To Bring Service Dogs In Businesses

By: Shannon Kantner Email
By: Shannon Kantner Email

"It's frustrating," Ginger Helmus said. "It's also disheartening at times that you've worked so hard for that service dog to be with your family, so that's kinda sad, too."

Potter Park Zoo employees are going through some new training this week after a worker turned away a boy with autism and his family over the weekend because they brought a service dog.

The zoo apologized about the incident, and said they've had service dogs there before without any problems.

It all comes down to the right training for employees not just at the zoo, but at all businesses.

"It was basically a misunderstanding with an employee," Dr. Tara Harrison said, a Potter Park Zoo veterinarian.

The misunderstanding cost a boy and his service dog a fun day at the zoo, and caused the staff to review their policies.

"It's better education, you always need that for any staff," Harrison said.

In fact, it should be for all staffs. The zoo isn't alone when it comes to questioning people with service dogs. Ginger Helmus is a volunteer at Great Lakes Assistance Dogs in Grand Ledge. Not only does she train the animals, she also lives with one at home.

"My daughter has autism, so, it's our life," Helmus said.

She said it's not uncommon for businesses to be confused.

"Just your basic outings, you know, grocery stores," Helmus said. "They will stop you at the door, ask you a few questions."

But by law, the dogs are allowed everywhere, and employees can ask only two questions: is the dog a service animal required because of a disabililty, and what tasks has the dog been trained to do? They cannot ask about the person's disability or ask the dog to perform, but it still happens.

"It's frustrating," Helmus said. "It's also disheartening at times that you've worked so hard for that service dog to be with your family, so that's kinda sad, too."

The dogs become part of the family, even though they're not considered a pet. Most importantly, they keep track of children with autism who have a tendency to wander off.

"You look away for two seconds and she could be gone, so that security, that safety net that we have now," Helmus said.

No matter the obstacles in day-to-day life, she said the dog has made all the difference for her daughter.

"She was capable of opening up more," Helmus said. "So, now we feel like we're part of the community, and we can do much more in the community."

Their family always carries a copy of the law to reference if there's a problem. You can find the U.S. Justice Department's list of frequently asked questions about service dogs at the link below this article.

As for Potter Park Zoo, all the employees are going through a special course about the issue soon.

They've also invited the family back help with the zoo's camps for children with autism.


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