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Assistance dogs face obstacles

Sadie is a rescue dog that is nearly finished with her training and will soon be paired up with the veteran she's been training for. Dennis Junker, is training her. DL NEWSPAPERS/Paula Quam

When word got out that Navy veteran Paul Connolly of Brainerd was denied a table inside a restaurant there after being questioned about his patriot assistance dog, that word spread fast.

A news article about the incident that ran in the Brainerd Dispatch made its rounds in other state media outlets, and soon the pain and humiliation that Connolly said he felt that night soon turned into something else – awareness.

“Most people understand what a Seeing Eye dog looks like,” said Dennis Junker, the Detroit Lakes Patriot Assistance dog trainer who is helping train Connolly and his dog, “but then they see these veterans and most of them look totally normal, so it’s not as obvious as to why they would need the dog. If nothing else, this is ending up being a great educational opportunity.”

Junker says although businesses around the Detroit Lakes area are always very compliant with the federal laws that protect service dogs, that’s because the Patriot Assistance Dog program was created here, dogs are trained here and business owners are used to them.

“But once you get out of Detroit Lakes, it’s a different story,” said Junker, adding that several veterans he’s helped partner with a dog have been denied access into places like hotels, restaurants, a convention center and even a post office. Confrontation like that, he says, is the last thing they need. It’s out in public in those exact situations where veterans need understanding and acceptance the most.

“They have the dog because they have severe anxiety issues already, and being in public is usually a really hard thing for them to do,” said Junker, “and so when people start questioning them about their dog, it can be hard for them to even engage in that conversation right then and there.”

Patriot dogs are a calming force for their owners while out in public. Many of them are trained to pull their veterans out of a store or facility in the event of a panic attack; if the veteran says “Get my back,” the dog sits right behind them and watches their perimeter, giving veterans a sense of security that helps keeps anxiety at bay. They create a physical barrier between their owners and other people – another issue that can put PTSD sufferers on edge more than people usually understand.

“And at home the dogs are trained to wake their veterans up from night terrors,” said Linda Wiedewitsch, the woman behind the Patriot Dog Assistance program.

Wiedewitsch and Jun-ker say they know their Patriot Dogs join the ranks of a growing number of therapy dogs being used today, including dogs for the hearing impaired, dogs that alert their handlers to low blood sugar and dogs that respond to impending seizures.

The argument the Brainerd restaurant employees had after the Connolly incident was that they thought service dogs had to wear vests (his dog wasn’t; it was wearing a scarf that identified it as a PAD dog in training) and even if it was, the manager was quoted as saying “anybody can go online and get a service dog vest.”

That’s true. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter. “I carry an ID card that says I’m a trainer,” said Junker, who is bringing dogs in and out of local establishments all the time, “and they (businesses) have asked for that card that I carry and the dog owners carry, but they cannot ask about the disability – they can’t ask ‘what’s wrong with you?’”

In fact, according to the American’s With Disabilities Act, which is posted on the U.S. Department of Justice website, service dogs are allowed into any establishment that is open to the public. Staff can ask two questions of the veterans: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.

According to the law, they “cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”

And yet, because folks involved with the Patriot Assistance Dog program are aware of how unaware some people are of their program and the law, they try to get ahead of the issue in order to avoid incidents like Connolly’s.

“It’s not required that the dogs be identified by a scarf or vest, but most agencies issue some form of visual aid,” said Wiedewitsch, who says the dogs in training are guaranteed the same access as the certified ones. “We issue bandanas for the dogs that identify them as a service dog, sometimes a vest, wallet ID cards; we issue a tag that goes on the collar – we go way above and beyond to identify them as service dogs.”

Although veterans with Patriot Assistance dogs have to be under the care of a mental health professional who recommends the certified dogs as therapy treatment, not everybody with a therapy dog does.

It’s quite easy to get a dog certified these days, even for people who don’t need them for psychological reasons but may, for example, simply want to get out of having to pay a pet deposit at an apartment or rented house.

“I know there are people who take advantage of this and a lot of loopholes for this sort of thing now,” said Junker, “People are manipulating the system. They can go right on the internet, get a vest, take their dog where they want to, and it’s hard to challenge them because of what you can and can’t ask, so there needs to be some changes made in the future.”

Junker says moving forward he will push for a change in legislation that would clarify the issue.

Even something simple like implementing federal ID cards for the certified dogs to distinguish them would help, said Junker.

But until there are stricter, clearer standards for identifying a legitimate service dog, the public will instead need to be aware of the law and its access requirements, which is very clear.

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