Cura and I have been together since 2009. We want to thank all of you who followed the early days as well as those who popped back on occasion during the long hiatus. Training was done, the days passed, and we were settling into our life together.
Fast forward: Cura is slowing down and a new member of the family is in training. On top of that, we are all busy with our new calling . . . Running the Training Department for Paws and Stripes. Join us on our journey!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Denying Access

Okay, so I feel that I must preface this post with a disclaimer . . . the majority of the time I do not run into this problem AT ALL -- frequently I am equally amazed at the positive and welcoming reactions that I encounter. In fact, several reactions in particular have impressed me recently so I am confident that a number of future posts will concentrate on more positive experiences . . . I promise. But for now, I want to address the issue of individuals and businesses attempting to thwart (either overtly or subtly) many state laws and the federal law by attempting to deny service dogs and their handlers or charges access to public areas.

It is amazing to me how many people come up to me and tell me that I can't bring Cura into a particular place. But what amazes me even more is that when I inform them that she is a service dog, their response is some version of 'Oh, she is? I didn't know . . . ' Now, I realize that I have not put up any pictures of Cura when she is in her working gear (after all, usually when she is working I am not in a position to be snapping pictures). I will now remedy that . . .

Cura 'off-duty'

In her vest

In her pack

In her cooling coat

As you can see, Cura is VERY clearly identified as a service dog at all times, particularly when she is working. When she is not working she only has a badge attached to her collar that identifies her but when she is working she is either in a vest, a pack, or a cooling coat (or some combination of the three) ALL of which have SEVERAL patches identifying her as a service dog AND asking that people not pet her (they don't always work, but that will probably be a whole other blog).

As you can see, her vest and pack are red -- very noticeable against her black coat -- and her cooling coat is silver -- again, anything but invisible! I am baffled that so many people apparently do not realize that Cura is a service dog. I can only imagine what people that don't put clear identification on their dogs go through -- after all, it is my understanding that legally it is not necessary for a service dog to wear anything that identifies them as a working animal (though it certainly makes things easier if they ARE identified). In fact, it can get down right expensive to get the equipment -- even for a person like me who is bargain shopping and buying less costly items.

As baffled as I am about people attempting to deny us access directly despite Cura being clearly identified as a service dog, there is a more passive aggressive response that I find even more disconcerting, probably because I have not figured out a consistant method for dealing with it yet. This passive aggressive response does not involve any direct contact with the individual in question. Instead of coming forward and telling me that I can't bring Cura inside the establishment, they just follow us around 'keeping and eye on us'. I have come to think of these people as 'lurkers'. Lurkers are different from the people who leave us alone but are fascinated by the whole service dog concept and watch us with a smile on their face, some form of positive expression, and a sparkle in their eyes. Instead, lurkers are hanging around with a sour look. I believe that they are just WAITING for Cura to do something that will allow them to make us leave. After all, Cura may be legally allowed to be there, but if they can make a case that she is being disruptive to the business or customers, legally she can be asked to leave -- and even can be banned from the premises permanently.

Unfortunately, the two most obvious occurrences of this happened in a national department store -- a rather surprising situation for me. I must admit to being naive and assuming that any national department store would train their employees on the proper way of dealing with service animals and, to be fair, most of the stores, department or otherwise, have been very supportive and respectful of the fact that I had an assistance animal. This particular store, on two separate occasions, resulted in two different members of staff 'trailing' me. I felt as if I was followed throughout the store, but I must admit that I am not 100% sure that was actually the case -- I may have only been shadowed through that particular employee's department.

Why is this more disturbing to me than a person coming up to me and trying to get me to leave? Well, for one I feel like I am being stalked by a person that does not have positive intentions toward me -- disconcerting, to say the least. Also, in such situations, I am not given an opportunity to counter what I see as their aggression. But, more importantly, the whole situation tends to make Cura a bit jumpy and distracted (ironically increasing the chances that the lurker could claim she is disrupting business). I have not yet worked out whether Cura is reacting to the lurker directly or if she is reacting to my discomfort over the situation. In a way, I hope it is the latter because, from a training perspective, that is simpler to deal with because to solve Cura's discomfort, I just need to control my reaction to the lurker which will likely just be a matter of figuring out how to deal with the situation. If Cura is being affected by the lurker directly, that becomes more complicated to deal with -- though not impossible.

I am very divided about how to deal with lurkers. A part of me wants to go up to them and ask if I can help them -- meanwhile, potentially informing them that they are affecting Cura's ability to do her job by shadowing us and, therefore, breaking the law (this is the more practical and assertive part). Another part of me just wants to ignore the situation and get out of there as soon as possible (the non-confrontational part). Still another part wants to go up to them and tell them to bugger off and leave us alone (definitely a confrontational part, influenced by my stay in Scotland)! These are only the three most prominent reactions, there have been others. So, I am not sure (yet) how to deal with lurkers, but I know that I must figure it out for both Cura and my sakes. Note to self: Remember to have a chat with Rick and Heather about this one!

Interestingly enough, one of the local papers recently ran an article directed at individuals with service animals suggesting that, if any business challenged their right to access, they should not only inform the representative of the business of the fact that they are breaking the law, but that they should call the police and report the incident so that the business could be cited for the violation (presumably to prevent the business from attempting to deny access to future service animals and their charges who would not be inclined to assert their rights and insist on being allowed access). Now, while there are already one or two businesses that I would be more than happy report if they give me a hard time one more time (personally, I find this a bit disturbing since I have only had a service animal for four months), I am not sure that calling the cops would be my first reaction if I ran into any resistance by a particular business. After all, my gut tells me that, usually, it is more a case of individual employee ignorance of the law than overt discrimination (I DO know that employees at one business believe that they are acting on the instructions of the owner, but my optimism prompts me to also believe that they have misunderstood or missed the clarification that there is a difference between 'dogs' and 'service dogs'). Therefore, I personally am more inclined to give both businesses and individuals the benefit of the doubt. So, as frustrating as direct challenges and lurkers can be, I think that I will only pick up the phone for repeated or exceptional offenses. Some may see that as overly generous, but I see it as being flexible and understanding -- maybe it is because I am a teacher by profession, but I tend to see these situations as opportunities to educate. Like a teacher, I believe that if the lesson is learned there is no need to penalize the student -- however, if the student repeatedly 'fails the test' then they must suffer the consequences of their actions (or lack thereof). So, businesses be warned -- while it may not be my FIRST reaction, I do have former students that will attest to the fact that I am not shy about failing those who consistently show an inability to grasp the facts and act accordingly.

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