veteran and dog image
Scott Landreth, Army veteran and his dog Rambo

Man’s best friend can be a life-changing ‘medical device’ for disabled veterans, but lack of regulation may be causing more access issues than it’s solving

In 2013, a handsome, stocky blond with a wide, friendly smile—Sooner, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever—walked into the West Roxbury VA Medical Center in Boston. As he turned a corner, he was attacked—lunged at by an emotional support animal accompanying a patient. This incident was only the first of several similar occurrences over the course of a year.

While Sooner incurred no serious injuries, this experience reflects a growing dilemma for disabled veterans and their service dogs. In increasingly common situations, pets are being passed off as service animals and have injured or otherwise prevented trained service dogs from performing the specialized tasks their handlers require.

Sooner was accredited through Assistance Dogs International, and as a “medical device” was insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs. His owner, Coast Guard veteran Alexis Courneen, relied on him for balance and mobility and as an alternative to using a wheelchair. But because of incidents like the one in Boston and the VA’s inability to override national policy at the local level, she stopped bringing Sooner to her VA medical appointments.

The VA did update its regulations in 2015, requiring that service animals be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. The guidance specifically states that “the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship does not constitute work or tasks.”

“The problem is that there is no governing body that regulates service dogs,” said Jason Courneen, Alexis’ husband. “And there are only two questions you can ask: Is your dog a service animal required because of a disability, and what tasks is it trained to perform?”

Businesses and organizations—even the VA—are not legally allowed to ask about a person’s disability, nor can they ask for medical documentation of the disability or any special certification for a service dog.

“There is no recourse for business owners or organizations under the current system,” added Jason. “Anyone can get a vest and slap it on their dog, and that really disadvantages disabled veterans.”

DAV life member and Army veteran Scott Landreth knows this all too well. More than once, he and his chocolate Labrador retriever Rambo have been denied entry to a business because proprietors are either unaware of the laws set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or they have had bad experiences with non-service animals.

“There have been a few times when people have told me Rambo doesn’t belong,” said Landreth, recalling an instance in which he was meeting his family for dinner and the hostess told him dogs weren’t allowed. “I said, ‘Good. He’s not a dog; he’s a piece of medical equipment,’ and pushed right past to join my family. When people bring untrained dogs places, people like me are more likely to have to defend ourselves.”

Landreth suffered a traumatic brain injury during his service that eventually led to a bulging disk in his neck. When doctors went to correct it, Landreth woke up without feeling in his right leg and in both arms from elbows to fingertips. While some use has returned, he can no longer walk unassisted and relies on Rambo as a means of living independently.

“Depending on my wife for everything was so demeaning. It made me feel worthless,” said Landreth. “Just when I was ready to give up, I became independent again with Rambo. I have a second chance now at a life that is fulfilled and meaningful.”

A dog’s service animal designation allows it to go wherever its owners need to go, including restaurants, public transportation, municipal buildings and hospitals—something that is essential to a disabled veteran’s quality of life.

“Alexis credits Sooner as the reason she started coming out of her shell and back into public,” said Jason. But as more non-service animals are popping up in public spaces, veterans like Courneen and Landreth face increased scrutiny and unwanted attention.

“It’s critical for veterans to have the protections they need for service animals being used as medical devices,” said Deputy National Legislative Director Adrian Atizado. “Though we know dogs and other animals have the ability to provide a multitude of wellness benefits, the bottom line is that emotional support animals, comfort animals and therapy dogs currently are not considered service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. It’s important for people to know the difference.”

Unfortunately, the differences aren’t so clear cut. There is a lot of misunderstanding and bad advice floating around, frequently putting well-intentioned pet owners in vulnerable situations.

“A lot of it is a lack of education and understanding. That’s a huge problem in the general population and not just the veteran communities,” said Audrey Trieschman, manager of communications for NEADS World Class Service Dogs. “People aren’t just trying to game the system.”

According to Trieschman, some organizations will claim to provide service animals, but they’re really just selling puppies to people who are led to believe they are purchasing legitimate service dogs.

“Oftentimes they end up with a dog that is untrained and they’re giving an untrained dog to a person who is already vulnerable,” said Trieschman. “They don’t know the background of the dog; they don’t know how the dog is going to support the veteran. People are taken advantage of.”

Trieschman’s organization—which is supported by DAV’s Charitable Service Trust—is certified by Assistance Dogs International, Inc., a worldwide coalition of nonprofit programs that train and place service animals. Trieschman said the comprehensive programs provided by legitimate service dog organizations are costly, selective and possibly prohibitive to a lot of people.

According to the Department of Justice, “There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA, and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”

Many states are now passing legislation meant to crack down on fraud or misrepresentation of service animals. In Utah, a law recently passed that makes it a misdemeanor to lie about a pet being an emotional support animal. Virginia law specifically states that providing companionship, emotional support, well-being or comfort does not qualify as performing work or tasks for a person with a disability.

“Everyone has a responsibility in this, including the handler,” said Atizado. “Disabled veterans with emotional support animals or therapy dogs have the same responsibilities as those with certified service dogs to ensure the animal is comprehensively trained to achieve its purpose and to behave appropriately in public.”

“You can kick out a service dog for peeing on the rug or being aggressive,” added Trieschman. “If it’s not behaving to the highest standards—certified or not—you can ask them to leave.”

Marine Corps veteran Joe Figarelli believed his emotional support dog—an English bulldog named Maximus—was his service animal until a friend pointed out the difference.

“I didn’t know the particulars. I thought they were one and the same,” said Figarelli. “A friend of mine with a service animal and I were just having a casual conversation, and he pointed it out to me for the first time. I thought they were both service dogs.”

Figarelli said the benefits to having emotional support animals are indisputable, but—after he found out about how extensive training is to have a certified, insured service dog—he realized there needs to be a distinction.

“[Maximus’] support is synonymous with me living,” said Figarelli. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. I didn’t care about living. He’s honestly saved my life quite a few times, but he’s in a different category.”

“The [ADA guidelines] are in place for service dogs to allow people like me to have a second chance,” Landreth added. “Sometimes people will tell me that Rambo doesn’t belong. But what they don’t understand is Rambo is more than a dog; he’s an extension of me.”


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