Hanover business followed federal rules when denying service dog - NBC12 - Richmond, VA News

Hanover business followed federal rules when denying service dog entry

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HANOVER, VA (WWBT) -

Tell a person with a service dog that they're not welcome into your business, and they understandably become indignant.  The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that dogs be allowed in. But the rules aren't as cut and dry as you might think, and recently, a 12-year-old boy and his family learned that lesson the hard-way.

A boy and his dog. It's always a special relationship, but even more so for Eli Hopkins, Jr. and his lab, Clutch. This lab is no family pet -- he's a specially trained diabetic alert service dog. With his keen senses, Clutch can actually smell when his master's blood sugar level is dangerously low.  But don't confuse Hopkins, 12, with somebody who has a disability.

Motocross is in the Hopkins family's blood. Eli is a seasoned moto-cross competitor, and a nationally known champion who's been competing since elementary school.  A diagnosis of diabetes has never slowed him down. And in the few months that he's had Clutch, Hopkins and his service dog had never been denied access to a business, until just recently.

The "she" Hopkins is talking about is Theresa Crowder, whose family owns a farm and nursery business in Hanover County. The Hopkins family came here to check out the flowers and the potted vegetable plants for their garden.  As Eli Hopkins was about to step into the greenhouse, he says Crowder told him, "He can't come in here."

"I said, actually, he can," said Hopkins. "He's a service dog. He can go anywhere. He goes everywhere with me."

Crowder is right, too, however. As a farmer and seller of produce grown in a greenhouse, she has to follow strict federal guidelines as well.

The USDA GAP standards are specific. They read, in part, "For indoor growing facilities, facility shall be maintained in a manner that prevents contamination of produce. There shall be measures to prevent the potential for contamination from animals, including domestic animals."

Crowder said she understands these federal rules conflict with Hopkins's right  to come into her greenhouse with his service dog. It appears to be a gray area, and you can expect more businesses to be hesitant to grant access to service dogs.

The problem is, more and more people are faking it, cheating the system. There is no official licensing of service dogs, meaning the official identification cards, service dog vests and patches can all be purchased on-line, by anybody. And people are using those things to take their pets into stores, restaurants, hotels and airplanes. All places where pets have never been welcome.

NBC12 producer Stephanie Leveque and her dog, Nutmeg helped demonstrate how it works. Leveque doesn't have a disability, and Nutmeg is wearing a service dog vest bought online. For good measure, we also purchased a $20 service dog identification card that states Nutmeg is a trained service animal.

We took them both to Short Pump Town Center to see if anyone would even ask about the nature of Leveque's disability or question the dog's right to be there, but nobody did. We went all over the mall, into several stores including Macy's, and nothing happened. Nearby, at Plaza Azteca for lunch, not a word.

Our hidden camera was rolling when Leveque even attempted to check into the Hilton, where they allow pets but charge a fairly high pet-fee. However, they were willing to waive it because Nutmeg appeared to be a service dog.

At Service Dogs of Virginia in Charlottesville, it often takes two years to properly train a dog to detect when a diabetic is in distress. And needless to say, the operator of this school is well aware of the growing trend of service dog fakers.

"If a person is impersonating a person with a disability, that is actually a crime, and it's unfair to those people who truly need to have a dog to help them. Nobody wishes they were in those shoes, and it's really unfair when people abuse that law," said Peggy Law.

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