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Canine Campers: Avoiding the “Ruff” Issues

Tips from Christine Taylor, an Attorney with Towne, Ryan & Partners, P.C. who grew up in the Campground Industry. |

At ten years old, my parents bought their first campground near Cooperstown, New York and franchised as part of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park System. My first job was dressing up as Yogi Bear and I have had a hand in helping with the family business ever since. When I was twenty years old my parents bought their second campground, in Copake, New York, this time franchising as part of the KOA franchise system, presently they own a KOA in Jennings, Florida. Over the course of all my years of growing up within the campground industry we learned a lot of things through trial and error and watched issues evolve over time.

One of the biggest differences is in who people bring with them when they are camping. More people are camping with dogs than ever before, furry friends often replace children in the family dynamic of today. This is reflected in campground amenities: dog parks, dog runs, dog obstacle courses, dog washes and even full-blown dog shows.

As with any change in camping, the increase of canine campers brings new challenges and the need for new rules and regulations. Through experience as a campground owner, I learned to handle issues as they arose and now as an attorney, I better understand the legal implications regarding specific issues. Although I cannot offer legal advice for your particular campgrounds, the following are some of the most prolific questions regarding our furry friends:

  • If a park collects paperwork from their seasonal canine campers, such as licenses or rabies certificates, should they require it from transients as well?
    Yes, absolutely. From an attorney perspective, collecting paperwork can do nothing but help protect you from liability in an incident. From a campground perspective, we had three dog bites in one summer and the first thing they asked for from the office was if we checked for proof of rabies and if we had a copy of the rabies certificate.

  • Can you require the service dog handlers to produce the same paperwork? Can you ask only service dog handlers for the paperwork?
    You can require the same licensing and vaccine paperwork from Service dogs as required by your local animal control or public health requirements (so check up with your town, county and state guidelines), but you cannot only require it from service dogs. As per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) people with service dogs must not be treated differently than anyone without a disability.

  • Can you have two sets of rules – one for service dogs and one for other canine campers?
    You cannot have one set of rules for regular canine campers and one for service dogs, this would amount to discrimination in the eyes of the ADA. You must have one set of rules that you then exempt the service dogs from, especially regarding breed restrictions. You cannot require those with service dogs to stay in only pet friendly rooms, nor can you charge them any type of dog fee or extra cleaning fee. However, in the event the dog damages your rental unit, if you normally assess fees for damages as per the rental rules, you can charge for the damage the dog caused and not run afoul of the ADA.

    As a special side note, although a service animal cannot be excluded from your pool deck, the ADA does not override public health rules that prohibit dogs in swimming pools, so no dips in the pool for the working canine.

  • Can you evaluate a service dog?
    As per the ADA you can ask a person claiming to have a service dog two questions:

    (1)  Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
    (2)  What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

    You cannot ask any other questions including asking for a demonstration of that task.

  • After asking those two questions is there anything else you can do?
    You cannot exclude a service dog just because you think they are lying based on their answers to the above questions. As per the ADA you can only exclude the dog if the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of others, is not housebroken or is not under the control of the handler. Under control does not necessarily mean leashed, it can mean an unleashed dog that follows verbal commands. However, the dog cannot be left alone and must be with the handler at all times, they cannot leave it behind in your rental unit. If a service dog is excluded 

    from your property you must offer the dog handler the option of continuing to enjoy your goods or services without the service animal on the premises.

  • Anything else I should know?
    Following the ADA guidelines may seem challenging, but most people are willing to work with you as they themselves want their rights to service animals protected. They often will be willing to express to other campers that they have a service dog and that is why they get special canine privileges. 
    But, giddy-up folks, as of 2011 miniature horses can sometimes be service animals, however their assessment factors are a bit different:

    (1)  Is the horse housebroken?
    (2)  Is it under the owner’s control?
    (3)  Can the facility accommodate the horse type, size, and weight?
    (4)  Will the horse’s presence compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility?

Should you have any further questions, I am an associate at the law firm of Towne, Ryan & Partners, P.C. whose main officers are located in Albany and Saratoga, New York and services clients located in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.