Ohio Statehouse demonstration aims to raise profile of service dogs
This week marks the sixth year of Service Dog Awareness Week, and with it, advocates hope to raise awareness about service dogs and the rights of people with disabilities.
Assistance dogs and defenders marched on Saturday to support visibility. Protesters marched around the Statehouse with signs, a megaphone and the occasional break in the dog washroom.
Christopher Cooley organized the event, which saw a few dozen people come out in support. He led the walk with his service dog, Larkin, at his side.
“What I hope is that people see us here and know that service dogs are our equipment and not all disabilities are visible,” Cooley said.
State lawmakers passed a bill recognizing Service Dog Awareness Week in 2016, one of the first of its kind in the United States.
Cooley said he hopes other states will adopt their own versions.
Rules for service dogs
Currently, Ohio law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allow service animals in all public spaces, including stores, restaurants, and hotels.
Nationally, approximately 500,000 service animals are in use, including those that help people who are blind, deaf, or in need of physical assistance, and those that provide emotional, psychological, or other support.
Laws have existed in Ohio for more than 30 years, but in Cooley’s experience, many store owners still don’t recognize that service animals should be allowed.
Kelly Camm is the Director of Development for 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that trains and matches service dogs with people in need.
“They don’t just do it so they can have a dog with them everywhere they go,” Camm said. “It’s a necessary medical tool that they need and we have to respect that. Just as we would respect the use of someone in a wheelchair, it should be considered the same.”
She said part of the pushback from companies may be because some people refer to their untrained pets as service dogs. Pets can often be loud, energetic and disturb other guests. In those cases, Camm said business owners can refuse to allow the animal inside.
In recent years, airlines have begun to crack down on animals on board claimed to be service animals, including toy ponies, peacocks and pot-bellied pigs.
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“We all love our pets,” Camm said. “We would all like our pets to be with us everywhere. But that’s not appropriate when we don’t need them, and a service dog is a durable medical asset.”
Businesses are allowed to ask if an animal is a service animal and what tasks it performs. But, they cannot ask the owners more detailed questions or demand documents.
If he is denied service, Cooley said he always tries to educate business owners who are unaware of service dog laws.
He said, for example, that he once walked into a store and was first told his service animal wasn’t allowed. But after a quick Google search, the store owners discovered that Cooley was right to bring the animal in and allowed it to stay.
“When they educate themselves like that, I bubble up inside,” Cooley said.
How service dogs are trained
The training of 4-legged dogs begins the moment their eyes open. From then on, assistance dogs are trained for a specific service, including autism, seizure assistance, and sight or hearing dogs.
Trainers will expose dogs to different situations such as large gatherings, children, fireworks. Only dogs that are not responsive are deemed fit for service and continue to be matched with their new owners.
Cooley and Camm said a true service animal should focus on its owner, not its surroundings.
“If he’s running around and sniffing other people, wanting to be petted by other people all the time, then normally he might not be a service dog,” Cooley said.
Those interested in receiving a service dog from 4 Paws must first apply and be accepted into its program. After being accepted, clients can wait up to 2.5 years to be matched with a dog and take a training course together.
Clients must also pay a $20,000 service fee to pay for housing, food and training for dogs from birth until they are matched with their owner, though the costs are often covered by donors. .
Service Dog Awareness Week
Camm thinks Service Dog Awareness Week is “huge” for the state of Ohio. She hopes this will bring more visibility not only to guide animals, but also to their owners.
“My goal is to show people that no matter what our disability, we are capable of doing the same as you,” Cooley said.