Our Lives

Our Lives: What you don't know about service dogs

CorrespondentAugust 31, 2013 


Cindy Schaefer.


Man’s best friend takes on a whole new dimension when you see a service dog team in action. I know; I live with one.

Pandy joined our family three years ago. She is a beautiful mix of Labrador and golden retriever and has eyes that will melt any heart. The things she will do for my son, Kevin, are mind-boggling. She was born to be a service dog. Literally.

The farm at Canine Assistants in Milton, Ga., has an entire human-sized house for the puppies who have a big job ahead of them. That’s where Pandy got her start. Her training began shortly after birth and continued for 17 months. By the time we came into the picture, she already knew at least 90 commands and was an old pro at spending time everywhere from malls to hospitals. She wears a vest that signals both to her and to everyone else that she’s working. I still find it fascinating that when the vest goes on, she goes into working mode and is so calm that when we are at a restaurant, few people even realize she is there until we get up to leave. But take that vest off, and she is pure puppy – running, playing and hunting any animal that dares venture into our yard.

So a recent news story about people buying fake service dog vests for their pets was startling. I just had no idea. And because I can’t imagine taking my pet Bichon into a restaurant without bedlam ensuing, I couldn’t figure out how these fakers were managing to make their pets behave. Turns out, they aren’t. The dogs often cause a ruckus, leaving all in the vicinity disgusted by the untamed behavior. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to realize that a few bad apples could ruin it for those with a legitimate need.

Part of the problem is the leniency of the law. A shopkeeper is not allowed to ask a person about his disability. Nor is anyone required to provide proof that a dog is a trained service animal. Only two questions are legal: Is that a service dog? And what tasks does the dog perform? And as they say, you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. I think the fakers should have to spend a day in Kevin’s shoes – or rather, his wheelchair. It wouldn’t take long to understand what Pandy is able to do for him, particularly now that he spends his days on his own at N.C. State University and its challenging terrain.

More than once, Kevin has asked a passerby for help opening a door, only to have the person point to the automatic door button and continue on, never waiting for his explanation that he is unable to lift his arm and does not have the strength to push the button. At State, pushing the button is Pandy’s job. If Kevin drops his phone, Pandy retrieves it. And I don’t think a large, protective animal is a bad thing to have by your side if you’re physically unable to defend yourself.

Because Kevin’s disabilities are visible, Pandy’s presence is rarely questioned. And if it is, it is usually done with respect and Kevin’s explanations readily accepted. There was one incident, though, that still rankles.

At what is arguably the most well-known pancake house in Myrtle Beach, the hostess loudly demanded that Pandy stay in the car – on a July day when the temperature had already reached 92 by 10 a.m. Her insistence that there was no room for a dog (we offered to show her certification papers and explained that Pandy would be under the table for the duration of our meal) and the lengthy one-woman scene that ensued attracted the attention of the waiting crowd and embarrassed Kevin. Pandy, bored by it all, went to sleep.

Because we were hungry, and because we didn’t want to set a bad precedent for other service dog teams, we refused to leave. As always, most of our fellow diners never even noticed the dog in their midst. When we asked for our check, our server told us it had been taken care of, tip included. We presumed the management was making things right, but we were wrong. We were treated to breakfast by another family who had witnessed the hullaballoo outside the restaurant and wanted to make our day better. It worked.

On the way out the door, the perky hostess who had publicly humiliated our son, actually said “Y’all come back soon!” Not likely. But thanks anyway.


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