People with mental or physical disabilities can train their own dogs to aid them and accompany them into restaurants, shops and hospitals without having to formally certify them as “service animals,” a federal appeals court ruled last week.

The service designation lets owners bring their dogs into businesses and other establishments that do not otherwise allow them. Allowing owners to self-certify their pets, after training and subject to reasonable limits, promotes the goals of the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against people with disabilities, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to promote “independent living and economic self-sufficiency” as well as equal opportunity, Judge Ronald Gould said in the 3-0 ruling, which overturned a federal judge’s decision. He said private dog registry organizations lack a uniform standard for certifying service animals, and requiring individuals with disabilities to seek such certification would make dog ownership more expensive and less accessible.

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The ruling is the first by an appellate court on the issue and will aid many people with disabilities, said attorney Christopher Knauf of the Disability Rights Legal Center, who argued the case on behalf of a Los Angeles County woman suffering mental problems after years of physical and sexual abuse.

“People have the right to train their own service dogs. They have to train them properly, but they can do it themselves,” Knauf said. He said a store can still exclude a dog that is not housebroken or under its owner’s control.

Raul Martinez, lawyer for a hospital that refused to allow the woman to bring her dog along while undergoing treatment, said the hospital can still try to convince the lower-court judge that the animal was not a proper service dog and would interfere with the woman’s therapy.

The court said the woman, a trained speech-language pathologist identified as C.L., was abused by her family and later by a partner, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, and other ailments that caused recurring nightmares, flashbacks and suicidal impulses. A therapist recommended a service dog, but a trained dog cost $15,000, so instead she got an 8-week-old bichon poodle, named Aspen, in 2013.

She took training classes and taught Aspen to protect her in various ways, the court said — licking her face to wake her from nightmares, alerting her when others were approaching, even standing in front of a wall to prevent her from banging her head against the wall.

But when she sought admission to the Del Amo Treatment Center in Torrance, Calif. for treatment multiple times from 2015 through 2017, the hospital said Aspen did not qualify as a service dog. A federal judge agreed but was overruled by the appeals court.

“A dog can be trained to aid a person with a disability without formal schooling,” Gould said in the ruling. The court returned the case to the trial judge to reconsider whether Aspen could accompany C.L. to the hospital.

© 2021 San Francisco Chronicle
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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