Under The American’s with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities are legally allowed to be accompanied by their service dogs into almost any place that is open to the public. There are very few exceptions. Church, is one of them.
Just because a church is exempt from having to legally allow a service dog to enter their building, does not mean that they shouldn’t. I have been surprised to hear from many families that there are indeed churches denying access for service dogs. I can only tell of my experiences with my son and his dog at church to emphasize how important it is for churches to think twice before turning individuals with their service dogs away.
Before my son received his service dog, we had just about reached the point of not being able to take my son to church (despite being a pastoral family). My son only attends Sunday School and Children’s Church. Sitting through an actual service in the sanctuary had to be given up a long while ago because it was just too hard for him. Even with being in his own class, it was highly stressful for him. My son is easily overwhelmed by crowds, loud noises, and changes in environment. It is hard for him to sit still and when stressed, he often times tries to run off or hide. All of those factors made it very hard to attend church.
Since receiving his service dog however, my son is able to withstand more. He still gets very anxious, but he knows that he can sit with his dog and his dog will lie over his lap (providing sensory input), while my son rubs his hands through his fur. I can’t explain why, but it is calming to my son.
He also walks into and out of church tethered to his dog. To my son, it is simply a leash attached to him so that he can keep his dog with him, but to us, it is a lifesaver that allows my son a little freedom to walk on his own without us worrying about him running off or getting hurt in the parking lot. It may seem so small to those who don’t have a child with autism, but even getting INTO the building can be stressful when you have a child who doesn’t understand dangers. Even once in class, leaving the room to go the bathroom can turn into opportunities to try to bolt. It is something that many people just do not understand. It is something that is made so much easier by having a service dog.
The biggest benefit of my son having a service dog is that children respond more to him now. Children are often attracted to dogs and seeing a child walk around church with one doesn’t go unnoticed. Prior to the service dog, my son was often noticed, but for the wrong reasons. Children would stare at him and back away as if they were afraid of him when he would stim and make noises. Having the service dog with him has acted as a social bridge, making an instant connection. Children go out of their way to speak to my son and ask to pet his dog. I cannot tell you what that means to him, or to me.
As for the dog himself, he blends right in. He has learned the spot he is expected to lay, and other than providing moments of comfort or accompanying his boy to the bathroom, he stays put. He has never once caused a problem. Other children do want to be with him, but they have learned the rules laid out and know there are times when they can and cannot pet him. I believe it has been beneficial to all.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of allowing individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs. I hope as time goes on, it will become something that ALL churches understand. To some it may seem a bit strange to think of a dog in church, but for families like mine, it has meant a way to attend church as a family that might not have otherwise been possible.