GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A woman told 24 Hour News 8 that she was kicked out of Festival of the Arts this past weekend because she had her therapy dog with her.
Joie Zwiefka owns a 1-year-old mini Pomeranian dog named Bella and she says the dog is more than just her therapy animal.
“She knows when I’m sad and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house in many cases. I’m dependent on my animal and that’s all there is to it. I’m dependent on her for so many aspects of my life,” said Zwiefka.
Zwiefka has documents from Internal Medicine of West Michigan saying Bella is her therapy pet and it is “very important that Joie be allowed to take her dog with her to public places.”
“I have fibromyalgia and anxiety and depression and so many things stop me from living my life so she’s one thing that helps me to live and brings me joy,” Zwiefka said.
She took Bella to Festival of the Arts Saturday and said she was first approached by a worker because it is against Festival rules to bring animals.
“One of the festival workers came up to me and said that she had to go because dogs aren’t allowed according to the ordinances they have and I explained to him that she’s a therapy animal and he said ‘well it doesn’t matter, she’s got to go,'” Zwiefka told 24 Hour News 8.
Then she was approached by a few police officers who she says ultimately told her she had to leave.
“I said but that’s against the law because I do have my papers showing that she’s a therapy animal,” Zwiefka said.
However, it is not against the law. Officials with the Grand Rapids Police Department told 24 Hour News 8 that the city ordinance in place goes along with the American Disabilities Act and does not recognize therapy animals. It only supports service animals and there is a difference between the two.
“A therapy dog can go into a group situation and provide comfort and loving kindness to a group of people. A service animal is specifically individually trained for an individual to mitigate a disability,” said Deb Davis, the Community Outreach Manager for Paws with a Cause.
That means therapy dogs do not have the same protections even if the owner has a doctor’s note saying the animal needs to be allowed in public places.
“If there’s documentation or there was referencing of a therapy animal, a therapy animal’s sole purpose is to provide comfort to an individual person, that does not have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Davis said.
However, an owner with a service animal does not need to provide any kind of documentation to be allowed in public places.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require any medical documentation, any documentation for service animals that are with their individuals mitigating the disability. The act does provide business owners and anyone in law enforcement plenty of room to maintain the law and to guarantee that it is a safe environment and they’re allowed under the law to ask two different questions. One, they may approach a person and ask ‘is this a service animal trained specifically for disability’ and two, they can ask what specific task that animal was trained for. They cannot require documentation nor can they require demonstration thereof,” said Davis.
Davis said there are a few reasons why therapy dogs are not recognized under the act.
“A therapy dog isn’t necessarily trained to mitigate a person’s disability. For instance, it doesn’t have specific training to pick up a dropped object or possibly to retrieve a phone in an emergency situation. It could have some training for providing comfort or knowing how to soothe a person who might be having an anxiety attack or even a group of people who come in and brighten their day, but that’s not considered a task that could mitigate a person’s disability,” Davis said.
Zwiefka believes that shouldn’t be the case and she, and other owners of therapy dogs, should be allowed to take them in public places.
“Life is difficult when you live like this. People need to have some compassion. If you go down to Festival and there’s a dog there, if they want to ask ‘do you have paperwork,’ and I say yes I do and present your paperwork then they should leave you alone,” Zwiefka said.