Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Your holiday gift to veterans this year: Leave your fake service dog at home

Posted by Elena del Valle on December 4, 2019

Guest Article by Sean Brown, veteran

Sean Brown, handler of service dog Pella

Almost every day, legitimate guide and service dog users are asked to leave hotels, restaurants, taxis, movie theaters, airplanes, malls, apartment houses and other public places because people don’t understand our dogs’ access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, all of which protect people with disabilities. But even more often, people buy fake credentials and jackets for their pets and bring them on planes…especially at the holidays. This abuse of the system makes the situation even worse for people like me. It shouldn’t be so easy to pass off a pet with false credentials, but it is. In Florida, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and community service time. So please don’t do it.

Dogs like my life-saver, Pella, are trained to perform more than 20 tasks that mitigate invisible AND physical disabilities. These dogs spend two years learning obedience and commands at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, and are provided to veterans like me free of charge. Trained service dogs can calm someone with severe anxiety, retrieve dropped items, provide stability for mental and physical in-balance, remind a handler to take his/her medication, turn on lights, and much, much more.

Pella makes it possible for me to live life without hiding behind a mask. Together we encounter crowds, shop in busy supermarkets, go to the gym and eat in restaurants without anxiety. Far from being a pet, she provides me steady empathy, physical support, and prompt reactions to the flashbacks, nightmares and stressors that used to be crippling. By contrast, non-housebroken, aggressive or otherwise untrained pets being passed off as service dogs often create trouble for merchants, the airlines and restaurateurs.

People can currently fly with an emotional support animal as long as they have a doctor’s letter, and many professionals say they now get pressured to write such letters for their patients. A quick Google search reveals that there are multiple companies that, for a quick dollar, will provide any animal with an ESA certification and “registration”. Often these non-certified and ill-trained animals bite humans, attack real service and guide dogs, relieve themselves in public and otherwise give legit service dogs a bad name.

This holiday season, please stop and think. When a working service dog is attacked by a pet that is being misrepresented, that service dog might be forced to retire. This puts the individual with REAL disabilities into an incredibly difficult situation that could have heartbreaking consequences.

It is not only against the law to pretend your pet is working to mitigate a real disability when you know it isn’t, but it is also just wrong. On behalf of the guide and service dog handlers out there with true need, please don’t do it.

After returning home to Savannah, Georgia,  from serving seven years in the United States Army, Sean Brown tried to juggle five part-time jobs. As a disk jockey, radio personality, musician, broadcast voice of The Savannah Bananas, father of two kids, and the public address voice of the Savannah State Tigers Athletics, he was always on the move. But severe post-traumatic stress had Sean taking 16 pills a day. He was obese, angry, depressed and suicidal; plagued by anxiety and hyper vigilance. Then Sean was paired with a mellow black lab named Pella from Southeastern Guide Dogs and life took a complete 180. In 2019 he joined the organization as a fundraiser and spokesman. When he travels, Sean is constantly confronted by fake service dogs that make it hard for legitimate, highly disciplined and trained dogs like Pella. And that’s just plain wrong. This article was submitted via Southeastern Guide Dogs, where he is associate, Philanthropy.