Veteran educates public on service dogs, ADA

VALLEY — Army veteran Curtis Jennings has been assigned a new mission he never signed up for — ADA educator.

Jennings, who lives in Monte Vista, is repeatedly confronted with situations in which he must inform and educate local residents and business owners on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws concerning service dogs. Jennings’ service dog Koble, a Belgian Malinois, is a well-trained animal who provides vital assistance to his owner who served in the Army for 10 years and was injured while stationed overseas.

Jennings suffered a TBI (traumatic brain injury), which causes most medications not to work correctly in the system, and he was in and out of VA hospitals trying to find a medication that would work for him.

“I would get dizzy and nauseated from any medicine above aspirin,” he said. One of the treatment options left — which turned out to be the best solution for the military veteran — was a service dog.

“They replaced my medications,” he said.

It was about eight years ago when he received his first service dog.

Jennings was fortunate to acquire service dogs through Paws 4 Soldiers, which has recently had to dissolve due to lack of funding. He is now working with his second service dog, Koble, who has been with him for about a year now.

(His first service dog was forced to retire due to the inappropriate actions of a person who interfered with the dog while she was on duty and disturbed her to the extent she could no longer function as a service dog. She continues to live with Jennings, who is even more determined to remind the public of the proper way to deal with service dogs and their owners.)

Paws 4 Soldiers covered all the costs for service dogs for veterans like Jennings who otherwise would not be able to pay the thousands of dollars it costs to acquire a well-trained service dog. Jennings said the normal turn around for veterans to obtain a trained service dog is about three years. The average service dog can cost $10,000-15,000 unless they are provided through a program that donates them.

“They are not cheap dogs. A lot have to be trained specifically for that single person,” Jennings explained.

Even after Koble was fully trained, he and Jennings went through six months more training for Koble to focus on Jennings’ specific needs. For example, Koble checks out a space to make sure it is safe before his master enters it or when Jennings suffers from night terrors, Koble rests on his chest to wake him up or brings his owner back when the TBI disorients Jennings. He also helps Jennings get up when he squats down because he injured his back, and the dog offers a bracing support for his master.

“The service dog is part of a team. We are a team,” Jennings said.

Jennings is originally from North Carolina and lived in Texas for about five yeas before moving to the San Luis Valley. He liked Texas, South Carolina and Kansas, where he had been stationed, so the Valley was a good fit for him because it has the mountains like North Carolina, the flatland like Kansas and the wind like Texas.

“I finally feel at home here,” he said.

For the most part Jennings has not had problems taking his service dog in with him to area restaurants and businesses. However, a few incidents prompted him to file complaints — and to try to educate the public on some of the “do’s” and “don’ts” surrounding people with service dogs.

For example, one restaurant wanted him to sit in an isolated area of the restaurant because they said his dog was “scary.” Another fast food restaurant recently refused him service at all because he had the dog with him, even though he tried to remind the manager of the ADA laws with which the chain should have been familiar. In another business a clerk followed him throughout the store because the clerk was concerned the dog might get too close to the clothing merchandise in the store.

Every business should have the ADA law on display so staff knows how to deal with customers with disabilities, whether they come into the store in a wheelchair or with a service dog.

Even well meaning people can be a problem, he said, as they follow him around a store or talk to their children about the service dog. “You don’t follow someone in a wheelchair around,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Also, never go up to a dog on duty and pet it.

“That distracts him, and if I need him at that moment, he would be distracted,” Jennings said.

“You treat a true service animal as a wheelchair. You don’t walk up to a wheelchair person and pet their chair.”

In addition, do not offer treats to a service dog who is working. Jennings said a dog is smart enough to know that if store personnel offer him treats, he is going to expect it when he returns there, because once again, that is a distraction from what the dog is supposed to do.

Owners should not be feeding their service dogs in public either, for example at a restaurant, and anyone with a service dog who is doing so is not acting properly, Jennings said.

Service dogs are allowed everywhere their owners are allowed, Jennings reminded the business owners and public. His dog can go into a restaurant with him or a retail shop or the movie theater, where Koble will lie quietly at his master’s feet during the show. If the dog and master are operating properly, people will not even notice the dog, Jennings said.

He said, for example, he had taken Koble into the VA with him about 15 times, and the first time they noticed him was last week.

He added, however, that there are times when a business can legitimately ask the owner of a service dog to take the dog out — if the dog is acting up and creating a disturbance or nuisance, or if the dog is dirty (not just if the dog came in from the rain but is otherwise dirty.)

If a business owner is not sure in a situation where a service dog may be causing a nuisance, the business owner can contact the police to handle the matter, Jennings added.

He also clarified what businesses can ask when they see someone with a dog entering their business. They can ask if the animal is a service animal and what service it provides.

A service dog must be on a leash and has to have a rabies tag. (The animal should also not be carried in a grocery cart or buggy, but some service animals are for diabetics who carry the animal in a pouch on their chest where the dog can detect by the owner’s breath if there is a problem.)

However, the service dog does NOT have to wear a vest or have an ID badge. “The only thing he needs is a leash,” Jennings said.

Jennings said there is a difference between a service animal and an emotional support dog. A service dog is allowed everywhere its owner is, but an emotional support dog is not covered under ADA and does not have to be allowed in a business. The emotional support dog is more for friendship and companionship than physical needs, he explained.

A service dog provides specific tasks for its owner.

Service dogs come in various breeds and serve various needs, Jennings said. Golden retrievers and labs, for example, are often trained as service dogs because they are gentle dogs. However, even a dog that might be known as a more hyperactive breed, like the Belgian Malinois, can be trained to remain calm, as Koble is.

“It’s not really the breed that matters,” he said.

He said Koble will lie quietly while Jennings has dental work completed, for example, at the dentist’s office. “He just lays on the floor for one to two hours at a time, never makes a noise. He knows he’s working. He’s a good dog.”

Jennings has had to file complaints against some businesses that did not follow the ADA requirements. He said for those who are in similar circumstances, a good resource is the Rocky Mountain ADA in Colorado. They can point people in the right direction if they have questions or issues. However, they do not provide legal counsel in instances where people have to take legal action when their ADA rights have been violated. Few attorneys in the state take such cases, but Jennings has worked with Ben Gibbons in Monte Vista on such issues.

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