According to an article from CNN, in mid-November 2013, Albert Rizzi and his service dog Doxy were on board a US Airways flight scheduled to go from Philadelphia to Long Island. Rizzi was the first to arrive on the tarmac and the last to be seated. Doxy stretched out in front of Rizzi, underneath the seat in front of him. The plane was delayed for more than two hours, and during that time, Doxy got up to stretch and reposition on occasion. Several passengers on the plane offered to have the dog lay under their seats, and when Rizzi accepted the offer, Doxy was placed under the seat of the woman to his left. After some time, because of the long wait, the dog ended up under the seat of his owner, against the back of the plane.
A flight attendant asked Rizzi to “control” his dog and to keep him underneath the woman’s seat. According to the flight attendant, there was a heated exchange and she said that Rizzi was verbally abusive. The pilot turned the plane around at that point, because of the “safety concerns caused by the actions of the dog” and Rizzi and Doxy were escorted off the plane by airport security.
After they were removed, other passengers insisted that the flight attendant also be removed from the plane and that Rizzi and Doxy be let back on. All 35 passengers banded together in support of Rizzi. After realizing that the passengers wouldn’t budge, the pilot canceled the flight.
I have been partnered with service dogs for more than fifteen years. I can say from experience that, just like people, dogs have good days and bad days. And just like their human counterparts, after a long time in one position, they need to stretch once in a while. Given that several passengers were willing to have Doxy lay under their seats, it is difficult for me to understand the concerns of the airline. Doxy was not out of control, he was stretching, and given a minute, I am sure he could have been led back under the seat where he was supposed to go. Several other passengers on the plane relayed that Doxy was never a problem and that the flight attendant was being unreasonable. As a service dog owner and a strong supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was fascinated by this story, mostly because people rallied around this blind man and his service dog, being so supportive of them that they were willing to alter their travel schedules by collectively leaving in protest.
Several weeks later, I went out to dinner with one of my caregivers at a local Chinese Buffet. I had my service dog with me. The hostess was not happy. Her nonverbal behavior and the service that we received that evening made it very clear. Immediately after we entered the restaurant we were seated in a corner away from the other customers. I realize the culture is different, and the hostess probably didn’t want my dog close to the food. However, the vibe was that we were unwelcome guests and intentionally being separated from other people. The ADA says that my service dog can go wherever I go in public, and that night in the restaurant we were simply exercising that right. I tried to explain that, but the hostess didn’t listen. When we got to our table, Leah, my service dog laid down beside my wheelchair and fell asleep. She didn’t cause any disruption and her being there did not change the restaurant’s ability to provide service in any way.
It had been a very long week. As much as I advocate for myself and my rights most of the time, I just wasn’t up to doing much of it on that particular day, so after my initial protest, I stayed quiet. Then something interesting happened.
As they were getting their food from the buffet, many customers made a point to stop at my table to admire Leah and comment on how well behaved that she was. They started conversations about the various dogs they had, and how much their dogs increased the quality of their lives. Every person who stopped to have a conversation with me about Leah bent down to pet her and say kind words to her about how wonderful she is. Additionally, they all did so while carrying their plates of food. None of the customers in the restaurant needed to do what they did. The fact that they each made the effort warmed my heart. Before we finished our meal, a woman who came into the restaurant asked to be seated at the table next to us so she could ask questions about the partnership Leah and I share and to spend some time with her. I was happy to oblige.
The whole experience got me thinking about Mr. Rizzi and Doxy. In both cases, the general public understood the bond between service dogs and their owners and put that understanding above what might have been convenient for them. I was impressed that people in the general public “got it” so much. In my opinion, that is the way society is supposed to be.
And what is my opinion of the flight attendant and the hostess?
All I can say is that on some days it seems that the practice of being polite and respectful has simply gone to the dogs!