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Can You Race a Triathlon with a Service Dog?

November 29, 2021
Source: Outside
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Experts break down the ADA laws surrounding service dogs and emotional support animals at races

It’s crucial that people do not claim an emotional support dog is a service animal. In addition to being against the law, misrepresenting an untrained animal as a service dog can create a stigma against true and necessary service animals.

Can I Race with My Service Dog?

Some running races allow service dogs to participate. There are stories of service dogs completing 5Ks, obstacle course races, and even marathons alongside their humans. But that doesn’t mean all races allow service animals—nor are they required to.

Though the ADA allows service animals to enter most public places, there are exceptions. This is what is known as “fundamental alterations.” The ADA does not require organizations to modify policies, practices, or procedures if doing so would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public. In other words, if having a service animal present would disrupt the event or cause a safety hazard, race directors are allowed to refuse the animal.

The race cannot refuse the person with a disability, however. They still need to provide some form of accommodation for that athlete, Serota says. “We do allow an athlete who is visually impaired to have up to two guide runners at a marathon distance race,” she says. “One year, we got a request from somebody who wanted their guide dog to guide them through the marathon. That conflicted with our policy. We weren’t denying them accommodation; it’s just the accommodation we offered was a human guide, but not a dog.”

Race directors can also remove a previously approved service dog from the course at any time if the animal starts behaving badly. For everyone’s safety, service dogs need to be highly trained to perform their tasks without disturbing or harming others in public. “If it’s out of control, if it’s not housebroken, if it’s barking incessantly, they can be asked to leave,” Murphy says. “Animals should be trained in basic obedience. If they’re not behaving in a service animal way, then you can ask the animal to leave, but not the person.”

Can I Bring My Service Dog to a Triathlon?

It’s less likely that a service animal will be allowed to race alongside their person at a triathlon. In addition to the obvious health and safety concerns of having a dog in an open-water swim or running alongside a bike, there is also the consideration of whether the animal can actually perform the task while doing such activities.

“One of the examples that comes up pretty frequently in our office is somebody wanting to bring their dog into the swimming pool. If the dog can’t perform a task in the pool, the dog doesn’t belong in the pool,” Murphy says. “People with service animals don’t necessarily have the right to bring a dog into a pool unless they can honestly say that the dog can perform that work or tasks they’re trained to do within the pool.”

I’m a Race Director and Unsure How to Handle Questions About Service Dogs at My Event. Who Can I Talk To?

There are many resources for making races accessible to people with disabilities. A good place to start is the ADA’s guide on service animals. You may also contact your ADA regional center, where you can connect with ADA experts like Murphy to answer questions for free and provide guidance on ADA laws and accessibility.

Related Article: How to Make Triathlon More Accessible for Athletes with Disabilities

Related Article: There Are More Triathletes With Disabilities Than You Realize: Making Your Race and Club Accessible