What's a service dog?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, service animals are dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. They are working animals, not pets. Their work must be directly related to a person's disability. Examples of work or tasks:

Guiding blind people

Alerting deaf people

Pulling a wheelchair

Protecting a person having a seizure

Reminding a mentally ill person to take medications

Calming a person with post-traumatic stress disorder

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

It started with a warm holiday in Folly Beach and a poodle named Lillie.

It became controversial with a police ticket from a city that limits when dogs can frolic on the sand.

And it has now resulted in a lawsuit with allegations of civil rights violations and demands for a change in how city authorities view certain dogs on the beach.

That's because Lillie, according to her owner, is a service dog trained to comfort Summerville resident Christin Barnhart during episodes of anxiety.

Critics of Barnhart's suit, though, have raised questions about whether her dog was being used for its intended service and about how much freedom such dog owners should have.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to stop people with service dogs from doing the things that more able-bodied folks routinely do. It defines such dogs as ones trained to perform tasks for owners who suffer mental or physical disabilities.

They calm veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and guide the blind safely across streets. They detect sugar spikes in diabetes patients and follow their owners into hospitals.

To the disabled with dogs, denying access is akin to the civil rights abuses of America's past.

Barnhart, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, filed her lawsuit in October, although the incident took place in May 2011. It called on the city to prevent repeats of the alleged rights violation and to pay damages, because Barnhart had to leave the beach and the enjoyment it offered.

Her complaint isn't a new one.

A legally blind woman from James Island said Folly Beach police ordered her family and her dog to leave the beach on Mother's Day 2012. City officers underwent training on the ADA after that.

But instead of questions about whether Barnhart's civil rights were violated, the suit's outcome could hinge on the facts. They are in dispute.

City officials already have taken strides to respond to complaints - efforts, they said, that put Folly Beach above other beachside communities in catering to disabled people's needs.

Audrey Gunter, president of Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, led a 30-minute training session for the police force in 2012, and said some officers have learned to tolerate service dogs. The West Ashley resident, who is blind, has become an advocate for people with service dogs. Her company educates public agencies, schools and businesses about their rights.

Gunter still fields complaints about local businesses about once a month, she said.

"You would think that all organizations and businesses know this is the law now, but they don't," Gunter said. "The service industry tends to forget to train their employees about this."

'A dog is a dog'

Barnhart has been medically required since 2007 to be accompanied by a service dog during public outings, her lawsuit stated. She also is physically handicapped under South Carolina law, the filing said, without further explaining her anxiety problems.

Her attorney, Jarrel Wigger of North Charleston, said Lillie had been specially trained. Wigger has handled similar lawsuits, but he said such cases rarely result in high payouts.

"Issue-wise, folks who have disabilities and service dogs are important," he said. "It's important to stand up for them."

On May 30, 2011, Barnhart and her husband were enjoying the beach at Fourth Street East. It was Memorial Day, and Lillie was with them.

Ralph Bryan, a patrol officer from the Folly Beach Public Safety Department, told the Barnharts that dogs were not permitted on the beach.

Designed to protect dogs from exposure to hot sand and a lack of fresh water, a city ordinance bans them from the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from May 1 to Sept. 30.

Barnhart and her husband explained to the officer that Lillie was a service dog, the suit stated, and they offered to show paperwork proving it. Proof isn't required under the ADA, though, because it's considered an invasion of privacy.

"A dog is a dog," Bryan said, according to the suit, before issuing a $150 ticket.

Barnhart left and returned later without Lillie. The experience foiled her leisurely day, the suit stated. She hasn't been back since.

'Ought to be this way'

The city has a different story.

Its attorney handling the case, Sandy Senn of West Ashley, said in response to the litigation that the officer had seen the dog running freely. Lillie wore no tag showing that she was a service dog, she added.

Barnhart's husband put Lillie on a leash only after spotting the officer, Senn said, and Barnhart wasn't even there at first. Police Chief Dennis Brown said she had been in a hotel room.

Her husband didn't explain the poodle's role until after the citation was issued, Senn said.

A judge has been asked to dismiss the matter.

City attorney Ben Peeples said Folly Beach has made sure that disabled people can use the beach.

A Columbia woman sued the city in 2003 because of its lack of wheelchair access. That suit was among 31 that Linda van Deusen, a self-described crusader for the rights of the disabled, filed against cities and businesses along the East Coast. Isle of Palms also was hit.

It was settled when Folly Beach agreed to address her complaints.

Peeples said the city since has offered free rentals of wheelchairs with wide tires that make navigating soft sand easier. People in wheelchairs now find several ramps leading to the beach.

"It ought to be this way," Peeples said. "If you have a service dog, you can have it on the beach or sitting with you at any restaurant in town."

In Barnhart's case, the officer had no choice but to issue a citation, Peeples said, because the dog had been loose.

'Better for it'

The ADA doesn't give people with service dogs carte blanche to go where they please. The restrictions against them, though, are few.

Gunter and her Labrador can't enter a sterile operating room or a hospital burn unit. They can't step on a military base without special permission. They can't go to a zoo.

But they can get a room at most hotels. They can watch a movie together at a theater.

"Along with all those rights come responsibilities," Gunter said. "We have to hold onto the leash. We have to groom them and keep them healthy."

Gunter knows how it feels to be stopped from doing what others with eyesight can do.

She once was blocked from visiting her ailing sister in Roper Hospital's intensive-care unit. In Anderson, she was told that she couldn't bring her dog to her dying brother's bedside.

But each incident became a teaching moment, Gunter said. Hospital employees learned from their errors, she said. She complained about the Anderson hospital to the U.S. Department of Justice, but she has never filed a lawsuit.

"Education before litigation. That's what I always say."

Gunter has come across people who abuse the law.

One man often brought his three dogs into the Wal-Mart store in West Ashley, where she saw them defecate on the floor. One lunged at her Lab. The man told her that the dogs were trained to detect seizures, she said, but were retired.

She's also on alert for phonies.

Internet-based companies sell vests and identity cards to denote service dogs, she said. ServiceDogsAmerica.org offers a package for $249. Anyone can buy it, possibly hoping to take their dogs wherever they desire.

Those are the people who concern Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin. But service dogs are welcome on his city's beach, he said, with a warning.

"Our policy was set to protect the dogs when there's no shade, no water," he said. "If you have a legitimate service dog and you don't care it's 110 degrees, that's up to you."

After recent run-ins with beach patrol officers, Gunter has sensed that some of them picked up on her teachings.

Brown, the police chief, said Gunter's training ramped up his department's efforts to make the Edge of America dog-friendly.

"We really have been on the leading edge addressing this issue," Brown said. "We're a lot better for it."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.