Mississippi considers bill to protect service dogs for veterans

A proposed bill in the Mississippi legislature could grant accessibility rights to service animals for veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, allowing them access to public places traditionally reserved for service animals for blind or disabled people.

House Bill 944 would allow veterans to bring their service animals, defined as a dog or a miniature horse, into hotels and businesses. Currently the state protection extends only to people who are blind or hard of hearing. It specifically says that service animals are not pets, rather trained animals who assist with daily tasks such as pulling wheelchairs, detecting and alerting a person about the onset of a seizure, fetching dropped items and calming anxiety attacks.

For Cody Perkins, former Meridian outreach service officer for the Veterans Affairs Board and now the state outreach coordinator, the bill makes sense.

"Absolutely it could be useful," Perkins said.

Perkins said he believed the amendment stemmed from a veteran being denied service because of her service animal. Motivated by the denial, she sought to have Mississippi amend its service animal law.

Perkins, a Marine who served in Iraq, said he didn’t know of anyone in the East Mississippi region with a service animal, but said he knew of several veterans who used service animals to cope with the effects of PTSD, which can include social anxiety, sensitivity to light or sound and anxiety or panic attacks.

Training the dogs

As the Hub City Service Dog training director, Alison Patrolia knows that training dogs to work with veterans with PTSD takes a lot of patience.

Submitted Rebecca "Becky" Floyd with her Doberman pinscher, Mae Berry. Floyd, who has been blind and using guide dogs since 1964, opened a school to train guide dogs in Madison.

"Some people think that they get a dog and everything’s fine," Patrolia said. "But the dogs have good days and they have bad days, too … it’s not a quick procress. It takes time."

Patrolia, a certified vetinary technician, volunteers in Hattiesburg at one of the only facilities in Mississippi that trains dogs specifically for veterans with PTSD. The organization also trains dogs for handlers with diabetes, seizures and anxiety.

Patrolia, who oversees eight dogs, discussed how clients and canines must be trained together, with each training customized for the needs of the individual.

"The process depends on the dogs and the owners," Patrolia said. "For example, if it’s somebody who doesn’t like being in crowds, then the dog will be trained to get between (the client) and another person."

Patrolia said that veterans with PTSD might disassociate from their surroundings or isolate themselves, two things that service dogs can combat by licking their face or asking to go on a walk.

"Beyond healing, the dogs also help people with their confidence," Patrolia said. "I think it’s important to have dogs with them because the human-animal bond is extreme … Dogs will help motivate people to get up and start walking. Dogs will help people push themselves and the dogs will be there with them every step of the way."

On its website, Hub City Service Dogs features service animals paired with clients, including two for veterans with PTSD. Both veterans declined to be interviewed about their experience with service dogs and thoughts about HB 944.

Helping veterans

Pam Baranello, the military veterans coordinator at Meridian Community College, said she was surprised service dogs weren’t already protected in Mississippi.

"Isn’t that done already," she asked?

Baranello acts as a liasion between military veterans, active duty service members, spouses and the Air and Army National Guard members attending MCC and Veterans Affairs, distributing scholarships, promoting tutors and giving veterans the assistance they need to go to school.

Baranello estimated MCC had between 250 and 300 military members attending classes on campus.

Submitted photo

"If anything is going to help (veterans), it’d be (that)," Baranello said.

Baranello said that MCC offered counseling services to veterans on campus with PTSD but said no veteran had a service animal at MCC.

"If anything is going to help them come back to school and back to "normal" life then I’m all for it," Baranello said, adding air quotes around normal.

For Texas veteran Michael Ryan, getting his dog Kingsley enabled him to return to that "normal" life and attend culinary school in Corpus Christi.

"Before I had Kingsley, I was shopping at 2 a.m. to avoid crowds," said Ryan, a friend of Cody Perkins.

Ryan said that before he got Kingsley in 2010, he stayed inside and didn’t socialize. Ryan said he had a traumatic brain injury while serving, one that made it difficult for him to concentrate, in addition to anxiety and PTSD.

"He’ll wake me up during night terrors… and he forces me to be more social. It was just a really great thing for me," Ryan said. "It’s just a lifesaver. It helps you get out of your shell."

Ryan said that Kingsley served a double purpose, shielding him from big groups by drawing attention away ("He’s a gorgeous dog") and by helping him pay attention in class. When Ryan’s attention wanders, a side effect of a brain injury, Kingsley will press against him to draw his attention back to the classroom.

"It’s hard to explain everything he’s done for me," Ryan said.

Ryan takes Kingsley everywhere, including a recent trip to Meridian to visit Perkins at Weidmann’s restaurant, which he said was a wonderful experience. Ryan stressed that dogs such as Kingsley undergo rigourous training, such as learning to go to the restroom on command, and must be a certain temperment to become service animals.

"I know it’s going to be new for Mississippi, but you should definitely embrace it," Perkins said.

Understanding disabilities

Beverly Hammett, who has been blind for 11 years, said that despite the protection of the federal law, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many business owners in Mississippi didn’t understand the law and its protections.

"Some of us have what we call the ‘invisible disability,’" Hammett said. "We look normal… under ADA, if a business is open to the general public they have to be open to service animals."

Hammett, in Starkville, said that she had experienced discrimination when a local hospital wouldn’t allow her service animal, Mazie Grace, to accompany her in the hospital when she broke her hip. As an ADA advocate, she assisted a veteran with a service dog whose doctor refused to treat him.

Rebecca "Becky" Floyd said she’d been blind and using guide dogs since 1964. After using so many dogs from other schools, Floyd finally started her own guide dog school, Gallant Hearts Guide Dog Center in Madison.

"I just wanted to incorporate into Gallant Hearts all of the best features from the other schools," Floyd said.

Floyd said she’d had difficulties, however, with restaurants and public spaces.

"Where we have a problem is that the ADA, Fair Housing Act and the regulations of the Department of Transportation need to get on the same page," Floyd said. "They all have different definitions of service animals and different regulations."

The blurring of the line comes with distinguishing Emotional Support Animals from Service Animals.

"Legally, you can ask two questions: Is it a service animal? And, what job does it perform?" Hammett said.

This would help distinguish between service animals, which undergo extensive training, and emotional service animals, which aren’t protected by ADA.

"(Emotional support, therapy comfort or companion) terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person," the ADA website said. "Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability."

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