Jessica Naert and her pal Makiko are joined at the hip. More accurately, they’re joined at the harness.
The 26-year-old Denton resident, who is legally blind, has used her 4-year-old black Labrador as a guide dog for the past three years. Makiko has been helping Naert with daily tasks, leading her around town and giving her a sense of freedom she hadn’t had in a while.
“Makiko really is my everything,” Naert said. “I can just do what I want to do and not have significant impediments because of my disability thanks to her.”
Recently, Naert noticed some service dogs don’t act like service dogs. People without disabilities are buying vests online to pass off their household pets as service dogs, she said. Then, people bring their pets along on a flight, inside a restaurant, or almost anywhere else that a person can go. By calling their family pet a “service dog,” they can avoid paying a pet deposit to rent a home or stay in a hotel.
“That is a huge problem for those of us with service dogs who do have legitimate disabilities and depend on our dogs,” Naert said. “It harms a business’s view of people with service dogs and service dogs in general. It makes it harder for us to have access to those businesses in the future, even though it’s the law.”
Finding the one
When Naert was a teenager, she noticed that she had problems with her vision. When she would go from the sunny outdoors to a darker room, her brain couldn’t process the change.
At age 14, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that destroys the rods and cones in the eye.
“It takes out your night vision first, then it takes away your peripheral vision,” Naert said. “The way I explain it is that it closes in and in and in until all of your vision is gone.”
But Naert didn’t let her disease control her life. She graduated from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitative studies and a master’s degree in rehabilitative counseling. She now works as a transition vocational rehabilitation counselor at the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in Denton.
She used a cane to get around for most of her adult life, but after talking to a friend with a service dog, Naert decided to get one of her own.
Dog trainers say any dog can be a service dog. Owners can train their own pets or adopt a dog from a specific group. Beside being obedient and knowing basic commands, all service animals must be confident.
“You need a service dog to be able to go anywhere at any time,” said Susan Warren, owner and head trainer at CMC Dog Training in Flower Mound. “They can’t be fearful.”
Naert got in contact with Guide Dogs for the Blind in January 2013 and was matched up with a service animal. When she went to Oregon that March for an intensive two-week training, she met Makiko for the first time.
A pair of soft brown eyes stared up at Naert, ready to take on the world together.
More than a pet
Because of their close working relationship, Naert said Makiko is no ordinary house canine.
“We’re co-dependent on each other,” she said. “I depend on her for my safety and independence. She depends on me for food, water and all those things. When most pets are family dogs, anyone can give them food, water or treats. With [Makiko], I’m the only one who fills her basic needs.”
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog (or occasionally a mini horse) that has been trained to do work or perform tasks related to an individual’s disability. This can include people who have hearing difficulties, diabetes, seizures, mobility problems or post traumatic stress disorder.
Sometimes, a certain type of service animal can fall into a gray area. For example, if a dog senses an anxiety attack coming on and alerts its owner, it’s a service dog.
If it only calms the owner during an anxiety attack without any alert, it is considered an emotional support dog and is not covered under ADA.
In Naert’s case, Makiko acts as her eyes and is allowed to go everywhere she does. This means walking the halls of Naert’s office, lying under the table at restaurants, shopping in stores, flying on airplanes and staying in hotel rooms.
Under ADA and other disability laws, handlers don’t have to pay a pet deposit at their residences. They also don’t have to pay extra to bring their animals on planes or to hotels.
Because of these perks, or perhaps because of an undying love for man’s best friend, some people have tried to take advantage of the system and pass off their own pets as service dogs.
“They’re going to eventually ruin it for people who truly need it,” Warren said.
Spotting the shams
At a restaurant recently, Naert had to have a lengthy discussion with the owner when she tried to bring Makiko along. Apparently, employees had problems with an unruly dog posing as a service animal earlier.
“They said they had a dog in there that shed everywhere and stunk and was barking a lot,” Naert said. “We just had to work through it. Eventually, we were allowed in, but it took a lot of education and patience.”
A simple Google search reveals the problem. The phrase “service dog certification” yields more than 2 million results, websites peddling everything from vests to ID cards.
The only problem is the ADA does not require service animals to have any certification or identification. The act doesn’t even require dogs to have a vest, though many owners buy one to keep medical information.
The only requirement is the animal is leashed, well-behaved and housebroken. Sometimes, that makes it easy to spot the fakers, like when a dog pees in a restaurant or barks incessantly.
Other times, it’s not so simple.
“It’s hard to tell, like when people bring in little dogs,” said Aaron Jakaboski, a server at Lone Star Attitude Burger Co. “Do you really need that teacup chihuahua for a disability, or are you just trying to be Elle Woods?”
Because there is no universal certification needed, businesses are at a bit of a loss when trying to identify legitimate animals. The only questions an employee can ask a handler are “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
Employees can’t ask any specifics about the disability or for any identification. If the dog is unruly and causes continual problems, a manager can ask the dog to leave but must allow the handler back into the business without the dog.
The penalty for owners who use illegitimate service dogs or for businesses who don’t allow service animals is $300 and 30 hours of community service. The problem has continued to gain attention in the service animal community as well as in certain state legislatures.
One potential solution has been to have handlers certify their animals with a national database. Naert isn’t a fan of that idea because she said it would make it harder to get a service dog and also take away some of personal rights.
“Why do I have to walk in a business and show a certification just because I have a guide dog and a disability?” she said. “Anybody else who wants to walk in a business doesn’t have to show identification.”
Naert hopes advocacy and education will help alleviate some of these issues. She wants to make sure business owners know their rights so they can protect themselves and also provide an enjoyable experience for handlers.
“Guide dogs are people’s independence and their freedom,” Naert said. “Having a service dog helps them navigate more freely and let’s them live the life they want to live.
“Makiko is my way of living my life.”
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.
How to Handle Service Animals
If you’re a bystander: Don’t pet the dog. You can ask the owner if you can give the animal a scratch, but remember that the dog’s main focus is helping their handler. Attention from others is distracting, so it’s best to resist the urge.
If you’re a business owner: Know that you must let service animals inside your establishment. If you’re unsure of the dog’s status, you can ask if it’s a service dog because of a disability and what services the animal is trained to provide. If the dog is unruly and causes a disruption, you can ask the owner to take the dog away.
If you’re in need of a service dog: Ask around. People with service animals will be more than happy to refer you to a trainer or business that provides service dogs. You can also train your own animal, but make sure they have a calm demeanor and know basic commands in addition to tasks that are specific to your disability.
For more information about service animals, visit www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.