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Amherst shelter wrestles with definition of service dog

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, who is homeless must eat in the hallway as Scuffles, her  therapy dog, is not allowed in the shelter's dining area.<br/>JERRY ROBERTS

    Christy McNerney, who is homeless must eat in the hallway as Scuffles, her therapy dog, is not allowed in the shelter's dining area.
    JERRY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, eats in a hallway as Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, gets her attention Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, eats in a hallway as Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, gets her attention Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.

    Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst's homeless shelter managers are working to determine whether it is OK for Christy McNerney to keep her therapy dog Scruffles with her at Craig's Place.

    Amherst's homeless shelter managers are working to determine whether it is OK for Christy McNerney to keep her therapy dog Scruffles with her at Craig's Place. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, who is homeless must eat in the hallway as Scuffles, her  therapy dog, is not allowed in the shelter's dining area.<br/>JERRY ROBERTS
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, says she doesn't know what she will do if she cannot keep her therapy dog, Scruffles, with her at Craig's Place shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, beside her boyfriend, Christopher Royster, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, eats in a hallway as Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, gets her attention Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Christy McNerney, a homeless woman, holds Scruffles, her cock-a-chon therapy dog, Monday at Craig's Place, a cot shelter in First Baptist Church in Amherst.
  • Amherst's homeless shelter managers are working to determine whether it is OK for Christy McNerney to keep her therapy dog Scruffles with her at Craig's Place.

But officials with Craig’s Doors, the agency that runs the Craig’s Place shelter at the First Baptist Church, are trying to determine whether they are doing the right thing by lodging a dog that its owners consider a service animal, but which others may deem a pet.

Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors, said the agency wants to follow the law and is seeking assistance in ensuring it is doing that.

Christy McNerney, who owns the cockashon mix, said a psychotherapist suggested she get Scruffles for emotional support. She said she is concerned that if she is denied the right to keep the 9-pound dog beneath her cot at the shelter, she will be forced to spend her nights in the woods or on streets.

“I don’t think I should be sleeping outside in the winter because he’s a service animal,” she said.

McNerney and her partner, Christopher Royster, have been homeless in the Amherst area for two years. She has sometimes given the dog to her sister to care for, but she says she needs the animal by her side.

Royster said he doubts that anyone would raise concerns if a guide dog were brought into the shelter. McNerney’s dog should be treated the same way, he said.

“No one should be discriminated against.”

Rebekah Wilder, director of Craig’s Place, said guide dogs are trained and certified, but there are more questions surrounding the therapy dog that need to be answered.

Noonan said many of the people served at the shelter are a more fragile population, and the dog could potentially disturb them.

“My concern is other people might be afraid of it,” Noonan said. “The fact they have a dog doesn’t bother us. We’ll respect the law, whatever it is.”

At the Interfaith Shelter on Center Street in Northampton, Danielle DeBerry, director of Hampshire County Emergency Shelters for ServiceNet Inc., said any service animals owned or used by homeless individuals would be welcome. In fact, DeBerry said it would be against the law to refuse entry for a therapeutic dog or a seeing-eye dog.

No dogs have stayed overnight during her more than three years at the helm of the shelter, DeBerry said. However, if she were faced with the issue, she said, she would have a conversation with the person using a dog to ensure the shelter would be a good fit.

“It’s all about the concerns with the particular individual and their service animal,” DeBerry said.

For homeless with service animals, it can be a tough situation, DeBerry said.

So far, Wilder said McNerney’s dog has been well-behaved and hasn’t caused any problems, such as barking. It is not allowed into the area where guests eat dinner, so McNerney eats out in the hallway with Scruffles. With additional space this year, which includes a separate room for women, McNerney said the dog should not be in the way.

She said she understands the homeless shelter can’t be accommodating to other homeless people who might bring pets but insists Scruffles falls into a different category.

“I’m not asking them to be an animal shelter or a kennel for me,” she said.

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