Specially trained service dogs can greatly assist persons who are blind or disabled because the dogs negotiate the world and perform simple errands that could be prohibitively difficult.
The recent questioning of a woman with a service dog by employees of the local supermarket where she was shopping points to the lack of understanding or knowledge in the territory about these animals, and their importance to some people.
When Mary Johnson, who suffers from a neurological disability that affects her balance and makes it difficult for her to move, went into the St. Thomas Cost-U-Less with a friend and her service dog Annie on July 1, two store employees and a private security guard questioned her about the dog.
"I have a mobility impairment and my balance is not good; (Annie) helps with both of these," Johnson said Thursday. "The day we went to Cost-U-Less, she had big blue packs on that say 'service dog.' She's obviously not just some pet I'm trying to bring in."
A friend of Johnson's had previously contacted Cost-U-Less to notify the store's management she and Johnson would be coming with a service dog. They were told there wouldn't be any problems, Johnson said.
The first employee stopped them at the entrance and asked about the dog. When Johnson's friend told the man it was a service dog, the man let them continue shopping.
A few minutes later, however, a private security guard stopped them and told them dogs were not allowed in the store.
"My friend told him this is a service dog, it helps persons with disabilities, but it didn't seem to sink in. He just kind of looked blank," Johnson said.
The security guard eventually let them pass but several minutes later, Johnson was stopped by the manager, who had received complaints about the dog from the guard and other customers. The manager let them continue shopping after a discussion about the service dog.
"By that time, all I wanted was out of there," Johnson said.
Cost-U-Less Store Manager Paul Frappollo said service dogs are always allowed in the store and that he felt bad about Johnson's experience, but employees aren't used to seeing the animals.
"I feel bad about her experience and I understand her frustration. Every time she turned a corner, someone's asking her questions," Frappollo said. "But how often do you see a service dog in St. Thomas? She inadvertently did something out of the ordinary, something people weren't used to.
"All the employees did was ask and once everybody heard it was service dog, it was OK," he said.
Frappollo said he has talked to the employees on duty at the time and there should not be any more problems.
"If someone comes in with a service dog now, everybody knows. She was the icebreaker," he said. "It was OK to bring the dog, though, and it will always be OK."
Frappollo recalled being contacted about the dog several months ago by Johnson's friend.
"Several months ago I was approached by a woman who asked me if I had any problems with her bringing a service dog and I said I didn't," he said. "I just asked her to let me know before she comes so I can let my employees know."
Cost-U-Less in not the only place Johnson has been questioned about the dog. American Airlines gate employees at Cyril E. King Airport almost prevented her from taking Annie on a flight to St. Croix, Johnson said.
"The people at the American Airlines desk absolutely would not understand the concept of a service dog," she said. "It took the captain of the aircraft to come off the plane and tell the gate agent there was no problem, that the dogs are allowed on the planes."
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs and theaters must allow persons with disabilities to bring their service dogs onto the premises. The ADA also supersedes all state and local health laws, as well as other local regulations.
Johnson said some businesses, including restaurants, have let her and Annie in without any questions.
"Most businesses have been real accepting, they know she's a service dog," Johnson said. "I just think a lot of people don't understand."
Editors'note: For more information about service dogs and the support organizations see the Health section of St. Thomas Source.