Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Disabled troops, vets misled on service dogs

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Dec 30, 2010 13:03:36 EST

Some service members and veterans are being misled and possibly harmed by well-meaning charities promising to provide a trained service dog to help with medical needs, according to representatives of a major veterans service organization.

What o ften happens, according to officials from the organization AmVets, is that disabled veterans who might benefit from a dog trained to do certain tasks may end up with an animal that a charity group has rescued from a pound, has been taught no special skills and might not be a true “service dog” for legal purposes.

“A dog with little or no training might be a great companion, but that’s all,” said Cristina Roof, AmVets legislative director.

Is it a real service dog?
Minimum training standards for service dogs established by Assistance Dogs of America:

• 90 percent of the time, a service dog must respond the first time it is asked to do a basic obedience and skill task.

• By voic e command or hand signal, a service dog must sit, stay, lie down, come and heel.

• A service dog must perform at least three tasks to mitigate a disability.

• The dog must be clean, well-groomed and not have an “offensive odor.”

• Unnecessary barking, growling, whining or soliciting attention from other people is not allowed. That includes begging for or stealing food from the general public.

• When working, a dog should be calm and quiet, and not distracted (even by cats or squirrels). When not working, it should lie quietly without blocking aisles or doorways.

• Unless told otherwise, a dog should be within two feet of its handler at all times.

• In public, a service dog must wear a cape, harness, backpack or other clothing or equipment identifying it as a service dog.

Roof said some media stories about nonprofit groups providing veterans with dogs rescued from shelters give the incorrect impression that an untrained dog is essentially the same as a trained service dog.

“It is incredibly important to remember a service dog may not be a good fit for everyone,” Roof said. “It is also crucial to remember that a service dog is in no way a replacement for your rehabilitation, either.”

Roof said service members and veterans should never pay for a service dog and should try to deal only with groups accredited by Assistance Dogs International, which sets training g uidelines and placement standards.

Dogs not officially recognized as service dogs — sometimes called therapy dogs or emotional support dogs — are pets, and although they may have some basic training, they are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They may not have access to public spaces and may not enter military and veterans hospitals and clinics.

Roof said ADA rules cover guide dogs for the blind or deaf, seizure-alert dogs, and mobility dogs trained to pull a wheelchair, pick up dropped items and perform similar tasks. A month-old ADA policy revision now also allows public access for psychiatric service dogs if they are trained to perform a specific task.

The Veterans Affairs and Defense departments don’t have to abide by ADA rules, Roof said. VA operates on rules dating to 1994 that al low only seeing-eye dogs into VA facilities, but allow case-by-case access for other types of service dogs.

DoD has similar rules, giving discretion about allowing dogs into hospitals and clinics to base commanders, Roof said.

Roof said access restrictions on dogs can be embarrassing for service members and veterans who believe they have a trained and officially recognized dog but are later barred from bringing the animal into public buildings and medical facilities.

Having a companion dog rather than a recognized service dog also can make a difference in terms of benefits. VA can provide financial help to veterans for service dogs, covering some costs for food and health care, but those benefits don’t extend to emotional support or therapy dogs, said AmVets spokesman Ryan Gallucci.

“It’s a confusing situation,” Gallucci said.

One example of a potentially confusing message is from Pets For Vets, a California-based charity that takes animals from shelters and pairs them with veterans.

Pets for Vets does not claim its dogs are certified as service dogs, but says in promotional material that their program is “a win-win way to give back to our troops who have given so much to us.”

Veterans with physical and mental injuries can have a difficult transition to civilian life, and having a companion can help, the group says. “Our goal is to heal their wounds by bringing together man’s best friend and our returning soldiers while showing them both that we have not forgotten,” the group says.

P ets for Vets did not respond to calls for comment.

Roof said there is no industrywide standard for what skills a dog may need to be certified to help a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues. VA is in the early stages of research to devise standard requirements for dogs to be trained to help veterans suffering from PTSD.

A Laurel, Md., nonprofit group, Fidos for Freedom, trains dogs in specific skills. They can be trained to open and close doors, retrieve objects, help someone keep their balance while walking, help someone get in or out of a chair, pull a wheelchair for short distances, assist in dressing or undressing, or help someone who has fallen get back on their feet.

The group also trains dogs to help the deaf or hearing impaired by responding to the phone, smoke detector, alarm c lock, microwave, someone knocking at the door or calling a name, the sound of something being dropped or even a baby’s cry.

Disabled troops, vets misled on service dogs

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