TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

September 30, 2013

New leash on life

Living life with a service dog


TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)

CORBIN — By Charlotte Underwood / Staff Writer

As Tina Davis reached to grab something off the shelf while shopping at the Walmart in Corbin, her oxygen hose slipped from her nose. Her service dog, Koda, quickly hopped down from her lap, retrieved the dropped hose and had it back to her before she began having trouble breathing.

“He’s a lifesaver; I don’t know what I would do without him,” Tina Davis said as she replaced her oxygen hose.  

But how does the public react to these “lifesavers”? Several area residents shared their stories, both good and bad, about living life with a service dog.

Service dog training

 Many people with disabilities train their own animals, according to Norb Ryan, the state coordinator for Americans with Disablities Act (ADA). According to Ryan, there are advantages to self-training the animals. It can save money  since having a service dog trained can cost  thousands of dollars. It  also provides a personal bond between the dog and the person with the disability.

Bound to a power chair and on constant oxygen due to her illness, Laurel County resident Tina Davis relies heavily upon Bella, Koda and George, the three service dogs that are now part of her family. Her husband, Jim Davis, is a military veteran and a recent knee replacement recipient. He, too, depends upon the animals that were trained by their son, Michael Davis, and themselves.

“When you are part of their everyday training, it provides a tighter bond,” said Whitley County resident Miranda Smith, who uses her service dog for mobility needs. If she falls or begins to lose her balance, her service dog, Sierra, a boxer, rushes to her aid and helps her. Sierra was trained by Miranda Smith and her aunt, Lisa. Miranda Smith has had her service dog for three years and said she could not imagine her not being there to help.

“Really she is one of the unique ones who has trained me,” said Miranda Smith, explaining that when she got Sierra nearly three years ago, she did not intend for her to be a service dog.

“Miranda was sick one day with a migraine and had been throwing up. Sierra was only 4 months old, but she kept coming and getting me, trying to get me to go check on Miranda,” Lisa Smith said, adding that was when she knew Sierra had the temperament to be a service dog.

“I told Miranda if she is this smart then we can train her to do lots of things,” Lisa Smith said.

“She helps me up, she keeps an eye on me. If there is a noise in the middle of the night, she practically breaks her neck to come check on me. She helps me get through my everyday life,” Miranda Smith said.

Corbin resident Brandi White sometimes feels “sensory overload” due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When this happens, Digby, her golden retriever, will extend a therapeutic paw and touch her, drawing her attention away from the crowd. Brandi and her husband Joe have been working with Digby for the past three months.

“It’s just better sometimes if you can provide the training yourself. The dog responds to your needs specifically and you both learn as you go through the training,” Brandi White said.

Kentucky law pertaining to service animals also allows for service animals in training, according to Ryan.

“The law requires that when service animals in training are in public, their handler must carry proof that they are trainers of service animals. There is no further information in the law about what an appropriate training program would be, nor is there any state agency that would issue such certifications,” Ryan said.

Educating the public

Tina Davis and other service dog handlers are seeking to educate the general public about rules and regulations regarding the use of service dogs.

Tina Davis said that while many places in the area are good about allowing her and her husband’s service dogs to accompany them, other businesses have been “truly nasty” about her dogs being with her in their stores. One area store insisted she could not bring her animals into the business, which, according to ADA, is illegal. Tina Davis said she plans to contact the ADA, if the business doesn’t correct the denial of service to her.

She said she and her husband rely upon their service dogs to perform many tasks. The dogs will  throw things away for the couple, open and close doors, provide a brace and summon help if needed.

“They bring me my medicine and the list really goes on and on of what they do for my husband and me; they give us our independence back,” Davis said, adding that it would be hard to exist without them.

“They can really do anything you need them to; if they haven’t already learned how to do it, it just takes some time and training and the right dog treat,” Michael Davis said, adding that Bella was in the process of learning how to push the handicap button to open doors at businesses.

 The dogs are “invaluable” to the couple who take them when they go shopping.

Many service dogs wear blue “Service Dog” vests and  tags that read “Service Dog: Do Not Pet.” However, according to the ADA, this is not required. The Davis’ service dogs all three wear vests and patches proclaiming they are working and to not pet them. Despite these notifications, people are often curious about the animals and will sometimes approach the couple. Most are respectful and understand the dogs are performing a job, but there is always a few that seem to have a problem with service dogs being in a place of business, according to Tina Davis.

She said her concern, which is born out of her own experiences, is that businesses are discriminating against people with disabilities, specifically those who use service animals.

“What I’m finding is most businesses, police and even the county attorney are not aware of the laws pertaining to service animals. I understand that it isn’t a common thing around here, but the laws pertaining to service animals and their disabled partners need to be made common knowledge,” Tina Davis said.

According to Ryan, the most common calls received by the state’s ADA office are from people with disabilities who have been denied services because of their service dogs.

“Rarely do we get calls from business owners or the public stating that a service animal has been a problem, regardless of who trains them,” Ryan said.

Though Miranda Smith said she hasn’t had many problems with stores discriminating against her and Sierra, she did have problems, especially initially, when going to the doctor.

 “They would tell me I couldn’t bring her in or they would just give me mean looks the entire time I waited,” Miranda Smith said, adding that she believed there was just a lack of information on service animals and rules and regulations.

“There is so much people don’t realize. She (Sierra) is protected under federal laws and I am so thankful for that,” Miranda Smith said as she looked at Sierra, who was next to her on the couch.

 “People will go out of their way to distract her when we are out in public; they will bark, and try to call her even though she is wearing a vest and tag that says she is working,” Miranda Smith said in exasperation.

 Brandi White said she has experienced similar situations while out in public.

 “I have had people bark at us, I have heard people say, ‘you don’t look disabled or blind’ or ‘Ew, you can’t have dogs in here’ and much more,” Brandi White said. Her dog, Digby, also wears a vest and patch that indicates he is a PTSD service dog. Though Digby is still in training, he is all business and stays close to White when they are out.

“He has really made a difference in her life. He will lick her hand or put a paw on her if she is getting overwhelmed in a crowd and he just brings her back down to Earth if things are agitating her,” said Brandi’s husband, Joe White.

“I think the reason a lot of people act the way they do around service animals is they haven’t ever been told that it is wrong,” Brandi White said.

Tina Davis agreed and said she felt some of the businesses that discriminate against those with service animals are simply ignorant of the laws, “but added she hoped it wasn’t out of “meanness or cruelty or a don’t-give-a-care mentality.”

She said they have even been yelled at and told the dogs are not allowed in stores, which can be a very “embarrassing experience.”

“They are service animals; they are allowed to go where we go because they provide services to us,” Tina Davis said. She explained under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are allowed to ask if the dog is required because of a disability, but they cannot ask about the person’s disability. Businesses may also ask what work or tasks the dog has been trained for, but they cannot ask that the dog perform those tasks. Also, according to the ADA, businesses may not ask people with disabilities and their service dogs to leave the premises unless the animal is out of control or is not house broken. Even businesses that sell or prepare food must allow service dogs and their partners on the premise under federal law regardless of what state or local law dictates, according to the ADA.

“There is just so much that people probably don’t know and if they were educated, they would probably react very differently,” Tina Davis said.

“This is their job, this is what they have been trained for and they love doing it. You can see from the look on George’s face when he is bringing me something that he is glad to do it. He is proud that he knows his job and does it well,” Jim Davis said.

“My life would be very difficult without them and I just don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have them to help. They truly are a Godsend,” Tina Davis said.

“I couldn’t imagine life without Digby,” Brandi White said as she gazed into his chocolate brown eyes.

“Sierra gives me my sense of security here at home and if the public was better educated about how to act around her, I would have a sense of security while out in public,” Miranda Smith said.

 Some rules and regulations pertaining to service animals

• As of March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA.

• A service animal is defined as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. This may include guiding people who are blind, pulling a wheelchair or calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

NOTE:  This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of assistance animal under the Fair Housing act of the Air Carrier Access Act.

• Service animals and their access to all public places and commercial establishments is protected under United States federal law.

• Service dogs can be used for the blind, for Seizure Alert, PTSD, Mobility and many other disabilities. A person does not have to have a physically apparent disability to have a service dog.

• A service dog is permitted to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where the public is normally allowed including hospital exam rooms, cafeterias, restaurants, arenas, libraries, etc. (regardless of state or local health codes or allergies or fear of dogs).

• A service dog must be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless these devices would interfere with the service dog’s work or the individual’s disability prevents use of these devices.

• A service dog must be housebroken, well-groomed and under the control of the owner at all times through voice, signal or other commands.

• A service dog who is not under the control of the owner or is not housebroken may be asked to leave.  If this happens, the person with the disability must be allowed back into the establishment without the dog if they so desire.

• When it is not obvious what service a dog provides, only two questions may be asked:  

1. Is the dog a service dog that is necessary because of a disability

2. what work or task has the dog been performed to train?

• Owners of service dogs do not need to carry proof of training and are not required to be trained in any particular school or facility. They also are not required to present vet records on the animal.

• A service dog in training is not recognized as a service dog until the training is complete and the dog has been assigned to the individual.  A service dog in training is not covered by the ADA.

• Landlords cannot refuse to rent a property to someone with a service dog, even if they have a  “no pets” policy, as the animal is not considered a pet. It is also noteworthy that landlords who do allow pets but charge a pet fee cannot do so for a service animal because it is not considered a pet. However, the landlord may require the tenant to follow pet policies not pertaining to fees.

• Assault on a service dog in the first-degree is a class D felony.

• Assault on a service dog in the second-degree is a class B misdemeanor.

• Service animals are exempt from state and local licensing fees.

• It is illegal to willfully or maliciously interfere with a service dog or the dog’s user.

For more information, rules and regulations, contact the United States Department of Justice at 1-800-514-0301 or visit www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm.

Important things to know about service dogs and how to act around them

• Service dogs are working. If you see someone out in pubic, do not attempt to distract the dog. Do not bark or whistle or even talk to the dog. It needs to be left alone to concentrate on providing care to its handler. Politely ignore the dog.

• Service dogs are often a lifeline to their human handler. The dog’s job is to ensure their person’s safety and can sometimes be the only thing standing between the handler and certain death.

• Service dog owners have a right to privacy, which is why it is illegal to ask them about their disability.

• Don’t “feel sorry” for service dogs; they are not working all the time and do get time off for play.

• Not all service dogs are the same. People should be aware that they come in all shapes and sizes, breeds and colors, coat types and specialities.

• Service dogs are actually classified as medical equipment, just like a wheel chair or oxygen tank. The dog is medically necessary and anywhere medical equipment is allowed, so are service dogs.

• Service animals are protected under federal law

• There is no certification required for service dogs. It is illegal for people to ask for certifications. They are not required to wear vests or tags that identify them as service animals.