Naples prevails in dog on beach challenge

 

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The Maine Human Rights Commission ruled Monday against a Naples man who was kicked off the Naples Town Beach last summer while training an emotional therapy dog.

In so doing, the Commission made a distinction between the legal classification of emotional therapy dogs, used as a support for housing, and service dogs, used as a support to access public spaces.

Christian Thompson of Naples had argued that the nine-month old dog  was a service dog when confronted at the beach on June 10, 2014, by Naples Recreation Director Harvey Price. Thompson has anxiety issues, and the role of emotional therapy dogs are to assist people with “limitations caused by anxiety, depression, mood disorder and other emotional conditions.”

Thompson said he offered the dog’s identification card as proof, a contention disputed by Price, who said Thompson was belligerent and refused his request to leave. Price said Thompson challenged him to call the police, which he did.

A deputy from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department responded, and, after seeing a registration card, was initially inclined to allow the dog to stay. But Price argued that the dog was not wearing any tag identifying it as a service dog, and the deputy acknowledged he wasn’t familiar with the law on that point.

Thompson said that Price was yelling and swearing at him, and charged that he was harassed several times afterward when he went to the beach without the dog. Price denied that his conduct was unprofessional.

The Commission based its ruling on the Maine Human Rights Act, which states that “a person seeking to access the benefits of a public accommodation is not entitled to have the assistance of an emotional support/therapy/companion animal.” The MHRA defines an emotional therapy dog as a “service animal” for housing purposes only, and not when it comes to accessing public accommodations such as a public beach.

The Commission also noted that the MHRA does not require that a service animal have any special identifiers such as cards, tags, in order to enter a public accommodation.

Therefore, the Commission ruled, Price was within his authority to request that Thompson remove the animal from the beach. Had the dog been a licensed service dog, Price would have been in the wrong.

Following the altercation on the beach, Thompson took steps to have the dog registered as a service animal, but the Commission ruled that such steps “do not change the nature of the dog’s services as an emotional support animal.

Thompson was working with the dog to train it to nudge or bark at him when he was upset, to provide a window of distraction to allow him to regain a sense of clarity and calm.

Editor's note: The article appearing in the print edition incorrectly stated that Mr. Thompson's son has anxiety issues and the dog was being trained to help him. The above version has been corrected to reflect the Commission's report and findings. The News regrets the error.

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