Service dogs (and miniature horses) have their own policies in city schools

By Bridget Manley, publisher

The Harrisonburg School Board is continuing to work on its policies allowing various animals, including service and therapy animals, in school buildings. 

The board began discussing those two policies at last Tuesday’s work session. One proposal, which the board passed Tuesday, addresses with more specificity how people with disabilities can bring service animals on school property, including specific sections for service dogs and service miniature horses. The other policy, which the board must approve with revisions, concerns how and when therapy dogs are allowed in schools to provide support, such as with a person’s well-being, comfort and emotions. 

A “therapy dog” is a dog that has been individually trained and certified to work with its owner to provide emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship to school students. 

Therapy dogs have been used in city schools for years, said School Board Chairwoman Kristen Loflin.

“Therapy dogs can be used in classrooms to help a child settle down or ground when they have been feeling anxious or upset,” Loflin told The Citizen

Loflin says that therapy dogs can provide an array of services and can help many people at one time. She said her family has experienced how a therapy dog can help students overcome fears and provide support. 

“When my oldest daughter was about 6 years old, the enthusiastic greeting by our neighbor’s dog knocked my daughter to the ground, and she began to fear dogs,” Loflin said.  “Fortunately, a therapy dog that visited her school library helped her overcome that fear.”

When discussing changes, Loflin took umbrage with new language that placed the responsibility on school administrators to find out if students and staff members have allergies and/or phobias to dogs. 

“I think [it’s] a really heavy burden to put on administrators who are already very spread thin,” Loflin said.

School board members tried to edit language but ultimately decided to amend the policy and take it back up at a future meeting. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, allergies to dogs and cats affect 10–20% of the population worldwide.  Cynophobia, or the fear of dogs, affects an estimated 7-9% of the population

School board member Obie Hill, who asked for the proposed language change, said someone in the school — counselors, administrators or support staff — should ensure all students and staff would not have any allergies of phobias before an animal came inside the building. 

School board member Nick Swayne said rather than asking school administrators to make sure “all 600 people in the building and getting positive responses from everyone before you bring the dog in the building,” the onus would be put on students and staff to alert school administration if they were uncomfortable with the animal in the building. 

“A therapy dog would be a really excellent tool to help someone to work through a phobia,” Loflin said. “The preferred way to help someone through a phobia is actually extinction — and time with an animal, in this particular example. A therapy dog, being highly trained, would be a really good tool.”

Service animal policy passes

While the school system can regulate therapy dogs in schools, the issues surrounding how the school system can regulate service animals can be trickier. 

A service animal, according to the school division’s policy, means a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

School officials should not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability and may not require documentary proof of certification or licensing as a service animal, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That means that anyone who says they have a service animal is allowed by law to bring their service animal to school and does not have to provide proof that the animal is licensed as a service animal. 

“So hypothetically speaking, we could have a miniature horse in the school, and it’s not certified, and if we get fifteen individual students who decide to bring their miniature horse into the school, [there] are no questions asked,” Hill said. 

The proposed policy calls for “reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability.”

The policy also contains specific subsections for dogs in training and for miniature horses.

For instance, the policy says the school division must consider the following factors when determining whether a miniature horse can come into a school facility as a service animal including: 

  • its type, size, and weight and whether the facility can accommodate the animal.
  • whether the handler can control the miniature horse. 
  • whether the miniature horse is housebroken. 
  • and whether the miniature horse’s presence causes any safety concerns.

School board member Kaylene Seigle asked whether identification tags could help determine the authenticity of actual service animals. 

“You can get them on Ebay,” board member Nick Swayne said. 

“It’s really problematic,” said Loflin. “It’s happening in housing, and I’m sure it will eventually come before a court, but right now, that’s where it is.”

In the policy, however, the owner or handler of a service animal is solely responsible for any damage to school property or injury to personnel, students, or others caused by the animal.

Even while debating a serious topic, the discussion wasn’t without some comedy. 

“Are miniature horses housebroken?” asked Swayne, prompting some laughter from the audience. 

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