Canine companions misunderstood often

Daniel Smith has nightmares: vivid, disturbing nightmares unique to a veteran of the Iraq war.


In February, he was deep into a bad dream when he was awakened by something heavy landing on his chest.

He was startled when he opened his eyes to see a big, slobbering face peering down at him.

It was J.D., the Labrador service dog he had come to New York to train with and bring home to Beech Island.

It was only his second night with the dog, but J.D. was already doing his job -- protecting Smith from the sometimes crippling symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

When he awoke the next morning, J.D. was still snoozing in the bed next to him, one paw draped across his chest. Smith knew from that moment that life was about to get better.

"He's trained to help you in any kind of situation," Smith said last week, rubbing the jet-black fur of the dog at his feet.

Smith's bond with his dog was already strong by the time he returned home from classes in New York, and it continues to grow a month later. But the problems he has encountered at home with the public were unexpected.

Before he acquired J.D., Smith hadn't taken his wife anywhere social in three years. Crowds make him nervous, edgy, hypervigilant for a threat. He feels uncomfortable when people brush against him, and the sight of someone of Middle Eastern descent heightens his paranoia.

It's not unique. Smith met a Vietnam veteran in New York who hadn't been to the mall since 1976.

J.D. and his harness are a lifeline for Smith. The dog can sense when Smith is feeling tense and will pull him out of the situation or serve as a familiar presence until the moment passes.

The public perception is less sympathetic, though, because Smith has no visible injuries.

J.D. wears a tan vest around his torso that identifies him as a service dog wherever Smith chooses to take him. But Smith still has to deal with children and adults who want to pet the dog -- which distracts the animal from his task.

Smith explains to children that just like a police officer in uniform, J.D. is on duty when he wears the vest.

Even that isn't enough to get him into some places without a confrontation. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are defined as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability." They are not pets and are entitled to go anywhere with the customer.

The credibility of service animals has been eroded by people who buy service animal vests so they can bring pets into a restaurant or claim that their iguana has to be by their side for emotional support.

That's not an exaggeration. A man named Cosmie Silfa in San Francisco carries a letter from his psychiatrist claiming his iguana Skippy helps him maintain "a stable mood."

New ADA rules that went into effect last week re-establish order by defining a service animal specifically as a dog and state that the animal has to help with a specific disability.

David Mosley, a paraplegic who lives in Augusta, acquired a puppy 10 years ago and trained her to be his service dog. Daisy, a German shepherd, provides several services, including picking up pill bottles dropped on the floor.

"I wouldn't give her up for a mansion on the hilltop; that's the truth," said Mosley.

Mosley has been on an apartment complex's waiting list for six years and was recently notified that there was an opening. During the paperwork process, though, Mosley disclosed that he had a service dog that weighed more than 40 pounds and the deal was suddenly off.

It was a shock for Mosley and his wife, Ginny, because they've never run into problems in public places before.

"What are you going to tell a blind person? That they can't have a dog that weighs over 40 pounds?" David Mosley said.

It took a note from his doctors certifying the disability that keeps him in a wheelchair and a note from Daisy's veterinarian before apartment complex officials relented.

"He's lost without the dog. She's there for comfort and support for him," said Ginny Mosley.

Smith ran into an issue when he entered a Japanese restaurant in Augusta. The assistant manager stopped him at the door and told him his pet wasn't allowed.

Smith tried humor at first and affected his best "Larry the Cable Guy" accent. "Well," he said, hamming it up, "good thing I didn't bring my other dogs with me."

Then he turned serious: "This ain't my dog; this is my service dog. It says it right here on his fancy little vest."

After a little more discussion, the assistant manager let him in and later bought him a drink.

Although Smith has no visible injuries, he is nagged by shoulder and back injuries from a roadside bomb blast, plus the PTSD.

"Not everybody who has wounds has wounds that are visible," Smith said. "Don't look at them and think they are normal."

Smith suggests that instead of silently judging, ask questions. Legally, a person doesn't have to disclose the medical reason for having a service animal, but most people will answer questions within reason, Smith said.

J.D. isn't trained to open doors or lead Smith across the street. But having a silent companion to entrust with your darkest thoughts is therapeutic for a veteran. The responsibility of cleaning, feeding and training a service dog gives Smith a new purpose in life.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about animals," said Ginny Mosley. "(People) don't understand how helpful and caring for an animal can really be to a person."


On the web

Service dog etiquette

Do not touch a service dog without asking for and receiving permission first.

Do not offer food to the service dog.

Do not distract a dog with noises or by waving

Respect the handler's privacy and his dog