|Judy Peltier of Gurnee walks with her Seeing Eye dog, Janet, several times a week at the Independence Grove forest Preserve, where dogs are not allowed. (Frank Abderholden / Lake County News-Sun)|
ILLINOIS - Freedom and Independence could be two good dog names, but for Judy Peltier of Gurnee, her Seeing Eye dog Janet literally gives Peltier her freedom and independence.
She wanted to make a point in the wake of October's blindness awareness month that service dogs serve a special need and people need to be aware of that, whether she is taking to task those "fake" service dog people or giving special thanks to all the people she crosses paths with while exercising three days a week at Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, where dogs are not allowed as a rule.
"What's really great is that other fitness enthusiasts there understand, respect and support us as a guide-dog team," Peltier said.
"They don't interfere or obstruct," she said of her fellow walkers and runners at the forest preserve.
Peltier began going blind at age 5 with an inherited disease called retinitis pigmentosa, through which she lost her night vision first, then her day vision. Eventually, what sight she had became tunnel vision.
"All I see are silhouettes and no details," she said.
She got her first guide dog in 1999 and is now on her fourth, all of which were trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J.
"You work with the dog for seven to eight years, and then you give them a good retirement," she said, which can mean adopting them out. "But I'm lucky I have a sighted husband (Tom) who loves to take my retired dogs," she said with a laugh.
"A guide dog offers enhanced mobility as opposed to using a white cane. It's just a choice to those who are legally blind," she said.
While she can see some shapes, her dog helps her navigate as it stops at crosswalks and for any change in the elevation, a step down or up, or something blocking her path entirely.
"Even doorways. They are trained to stop you when a car is pulling out of the driveway. These dogs take their final test in midtown Manhattan. These dogs are trained to save both our lives," she said.
"The mall is a great training ground," she said, which is where she walks in the winter. "The dog has to get you around strollers, kids running in and out of stores, kiosks with those little squeaky things," she said.
What she wants to remind people is that they should not act like she has a regular dog. In fact, she was reluctant to reveal Janet's name for that very reason.
"That's very critical. Sometimes people will start talking to the dog and distracting the dog. But, these dogs are to be ignored because they are working, and people need to know how to act," Peltier said.
And dog owners who try to pass their dogs off as service dogs prompts real scorn from Peltier, who has experienced unruly pets inside stores in the past.
"They were clearly not working dogs. They were barking and lunging at my dog," she said. "A service dog is trained to ignore other dogs. When people do that, it disrupts the work of the legitimate dog."
At The Seeing Eye training facility, dogs are taken to train stations, "so they feel the ground move, and (are) around traffic and loud noises so they become used to it," she said.
President and CEO, James A. Kutsch Jr. of The Seeing Eye dog training school, first established in 1929, says Peltier is right about giving a service dog space. Their organization kicked off a campaign recently to remind people not to disturb service dogs or let their dogs distract service dogs.
"Any poorly trained or poorly controlled dog can interfere with the effective use of service animals, and can jeopardize the safety of both the disabled handler and the service dog," said Kutsch, who has had Seeing Eye trained dogs since 1970.He believes incidents where a dog barks and lunges in a business as putting the business owner in a bad situation, because people can use social media against the business.
"Businesses are put in a tough place and the general public needs to be educated. There needs to be an awareness," he said.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), business owners can ask a disruptive dog and owner to leave an establishment.
"If the general public understands that, then social media can be positive and the business gets approval and not condemnation from the public," Kutch said. "Businesses and the general public need to be more aware that they are not required to tolerate bad behavior from any animal, be it a fake or a legitimate service animal."
The only thing a business owner can ask a person with a service dog is, "What task is the dog trained to do to mitigate the disability?" he said.
Some politicians want to be able to certify dogs, but he is against that idea.
"There are many proponents of that solution. People with disabilities struggle enough that this just becomes an additional burden," he said. It's like every time you go to pull out of your driveway, you're asked for your driver's license, he added.
"A well-behaved dog doesn't bother me, whether it's a legitimate service dog or not," Kutsch said, but he's not encouraging people to try and pass off the family pet as a service dog.
"I personally think it's always been a problem," but media and legislative attention seems to "backfire," he said. "Look how easy it is. The general public says 'Why didn't I think of that.' And, as a result, we are seeing more of it," he said.
In fact, he warns against buying some package readily sold on the internet from $21.99 to $125 that offers training and an official looking harness, because the ADA does not require it.
"Everyone needs to remember the equipment doesn't make it legitimate. There is no way to tell by breed or size (they use three-quarter yellow Labrador and a quarter golden retriever for their dogs, which are specially trained for four months) to know if it's a service animal or not," Kutsch said.
"A dog for the blind is obvious, but dogs are trained to detect low blood sugar in diabetics and the onset of an epileptic seizure, and that can't be easily identified by the passerby," he said.
It boils down to good behavior can't be faked, and most family pets are out of their element, so his general message to anyone thinking about faking it is not to.
"Don't do it, because your dog is probably not prepared for the stress and it will misbehave. Don't do it, because you give a black eye to legitimate dogs and users who are trying to go about their daily life," he said.Annie Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Office of the Attorney General, said the ADA defines a service animal as any dog individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability, regardless of whether the animal is certified by a particular entity or wearing identifying markers.
"The Disability Rights Bureau enforces state and federal laws to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to their communities, and that includes educating businesses and the public about the importance of accommodating people who use service animals," she said in an email.
Individuals can contact the Disability Rights Bureau to file complaints or obtain additional information about service animals and other disability laws at 312-814-5684 in Chicago or 217-524-2660 in Springfield. The attorney general's link for ADA is at http://www.ag.state.il.us/rights/servanimals.html.
Kutsch offered this link for their effort to encourage the general public not to distract service dogs at https://www.guidedogatwork.org/. He also offered this link to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, at http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.
Peltier said the Chicago-based Equip For Equality website is also helpful for people with disabilities at https://www.equipforequality.org/.
She recently recently did the five-mile Mackinaw Bridge walk in Michigan, where she and Janet carved through 25,000 participants without a hitch. No pet dogs were allowed.
"With hand on harness, this six-footed team has many more miles to roam and bridges to cross with freedom and independence," she said.