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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Illinois: Service dog in Addison Park District pool sparks complaint

Daily Herald By Elisabeth Mistretta ..Dec 16, 2011

Illinois -- When a disabled Marines veteran told the Addison Park District he needed his service dog to help him exercise in their Club Fitness pool, staff members immediately started their homework.

They contacted the DuPage County Health Department, which inspects the pool’s chemical levels and temperature each month, to ensure sanitation in the water. They also hung fliers throughout the club, at 1776 W. Centennial Place, with photos of the dog and an explanation of why he would be there, so members wouldn’t be surprised by the newest guest.

The veteran, who told park officials not to name him and keep the specifics of his disability private for this article, uses the dog to help him enter and exit the water, to help him walk in the pool, and to tow him when he swims.

“Initially we had a couple eyebrows raised, but when (we) explained why the dog needs to be in the pool with him, everyone seemed to be comfortable with it,” parks Executive Director Mark McKinnon said.

In recent weeks, however, one fitness club member continually complained the dog poses a sanitation risk, specifically worrying about bathroom accidents in the water, McKinnon said. The member cited research he conducted on the Center for Disease Control’s website, and plans to speak out Monday during the park board meeting at 7:30 p.m.

Now, park district officials are doing more research. But McKinnon and his staff stand by their decision, saying it is their legal obligation to allow the dog in the water, plus the animal poses few threats.

Last week, Greg Vitale, manger of fitness and operations, spoke with officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the disability rights bureau at the Illinois attorney general’s office. Both confirmed the district should allow the canine, who was trained by the New York-based America’s VetDogs, he said.

“It’s our intent, and our lawful obligation, at all times to let people with disabilities in our facilities,” said Vitale. “Being a public entity, we are bound by a stricter standard. But exploring the safety factor is where (the state health department) came in.”

Ultimately, the park district received verbal and written explanations from the health department and from America’s Vet Dogs confirming they should allow the dog.

“We were told the dog may slightly alter the chemical balance of the pool, but no more than a human,” Vitale said. “It’s also important to note, too, that the dog has a ton of training. It’s not like my dog at home. If the dog has an unlikely accident, we still have mandated orders we must follow as if a child had an accident in the pool.

“Plus, if the pool is (chemically) where it should be, 99 percent of all contaminants are killed within five seconds of touching the pool. And if there’s an accident we will treat it immediately,” Vitale said.

The only reason the dog should be removed is if he is “deemed to be a risk to the safety of the owner, other patrons or staff,” according to a letter from Justin DeWitt, chief of general engineering for the department of health’s division of environmental health.


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