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Patriot Assistance Dogs face obstacles

By Paula Quam

Forum News Service

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- When word got out that a Navy veteran was denied a table inside a Brainerd restaurant last month after being questioned about his service dog, the news spread fast.

After an article in the Brainerd Dispatch, the story made its rounds in other media outlets, and the pain and humiliation that Paul Connolly of Brainerd 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 said that although businesses in the Detroit Lakes area always comply with federal laws that protect service dogs, it’s because the Patriot Assistance Dog program was created there, dogs are trained there 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 at hotels, restaurants, a convention center and even a post office.

Out in public in those situations is where veterans need understanding the most, he said.

“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,” Junker said. “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 in public. Many are trained to pull 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 him and watches his perimeter, giving the veteran a sense of security that keeps anxiety at bay.

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

Wiedewitsch and Junker said Patriot Assistance Dogs join the ranks of a growing number of therapy dogs, including dogs for the hearing impaired, those that alert their handlers to low blood sugar and those that respond to impending seizures.

After Connolly’s encounter, Brainerd restaurant employees said they thought service dogs had to wear vests. His dog wasn’t wearing one, but rather was wearing a scarf that identified it as a Patriot Assistance Dog in training.

A vest is not a requirement, Wiedewitsch said. But because people involved with the Patriot Assistance Dog program know many people are unaware of their program and the law, they try to get ahead of the issue 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 added that 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.”

According to the Americans 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?

-- 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.”

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

It’s quite easy to get a dog certified, even for people who don’t need them for psychological reasons but may, for example, simply want to avoid paying a pet deposit at an apartment.

“I know there are people who take advantage of this and a lot of loopholes for this sort of thing now,” Junker said. “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 said he will push for a change in legislation that would clarify the issue.

Even something simple such as federal ID cards for the certified dogs to distinguish them would help, he said.

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