At the front desk of the Florida country club, the host took one look at my husband’s service dog and told us we’d be eating Thanksgiving dinner on the outdoor patio.
For years, my husband had relied on his service dog, Dozer, to help cope with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his military service. Dozer was essential to my husband’s well-being, a living medical device not unlike a walker or wheelchair.
When I scanned the dining room beyond, where a beautiful buffet lunch beckoned, I saw plenty of those. This was the point I argued with the host: By denying Dozer access, they were picking and choosing which disabilities they accommodated.
We ate outdoors anyway. And the country club had every right to seat us there. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of service dogs in public spaces but does not apply to private, members-only clubs, houses of worship and federal buildings, including the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As founder and president of Leashes of Valor, a nonprofit that provides service dogs at no cost to post-9/11 veterans with mental health conditions such as PTSD, it’s my job to make sure those we serve know their rights and understand such distinctions in the ADA. The holidays in particular can pose challenges, especially when traveling or visiting new places like we did that Thanksgiving.
But whether a canine handler or host, there are things we all can do to take some of the stress out of the holidays. Anticipating possible hiccups, having candid conversations upfront and planning or calling ahead can pay off exponentially.
As doctors--and the U.S. Congress--increasingly recognize service dogs as a treatment option for veterans with PTSD, we are likely to see more of them. About three million Americans served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, either in direct combat or support roles. In any given year, between 11 and 20% of them have PTSD. Other veterans have PTSD as a result of injuries or other service-related traumas.
A recent study found that suicides among post-9/11 veterans are four times combat deaths. “As the U.S. tries to close this chapter in its military history,” according to an analysis by the Costs of War Project, “an entire generation of veterans and families will not be able to do so. The cost of these wars will in blood, toil and treasure will endure for the next-half century.” In other words, neither the traumas of two decades of war or the treatments are going away.
I had a front row seat to the healing possibilities of service dogs when my husband was paired with Dozer. And I hear almost daily from veterans how their service dog has helped them become active participants in their families and communities, sometimes after years of isolation.
For some veterans, service dogs actually make it possible to get on an airplane or attend a holiday gathering again.
Service dog handlers have responsibilities; when it comes to air travel, that includes filling out the U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation form at least 48 hours before flying and any other documents required by an airline. The Transportation Security Administration also has rules about what you can carry on. If you’re a handler, instead of assuming it’s OK to pack 30 pounds of kibble, for example, order dog food to your destination. (Denying dog food is not denying access, and rules are in place for a reason.)
Other things to keep in mind if traveling this holiday: If you plan to play golf at a private club or attend a worship service and you’re taking your service dog, get permission in advance. Our experience with Dozer that Thanksgiving might have played out differently if we’d had the conversation before we got there.
Whether a handler or a host welcoming a handler into your home, have a conversation upfront about arrangements and boundaries. Are there pets in the house? How do they behave around other animals? Just because someone says their dog is socialized doesn’t mean they are. Or that you share the same definition of “socialized.” When a pet becomes aggressive, it can make for a difficult situation for everyone, so plan for the scenario ahead of time. Maybe that means putting the pet in a bedroom while the service dog hangs out and then putting the service dog in the bedroom while the pet hangs out. And always have a place to put the service dog away.
It’s also up to you to inform hosts and other guests about the rules surrounding your service dog--no table food, for example--and to enforce them. If your travel activities aren’t feasible for a service animal, have a crate. Just as you wouldn’t drop your child off at a front desk and expect someone else to watch him or her for a few hours, you wouldn’t hand off your service dog, either.
As a host, make sure other guests know what the handler’s rules are. If you have concerns about a dog in the house--fur all over the furniture, for example--be up front about those. Maybe you put towels down or the dog stays on the floor. A bit of child-proofing might also be in order: put the poisonous plants away, keep the chocolate out of reach and elevate the porcelain figurines.
Finally, as a handler, remember that while you and your service dog have every right to be in the same places as members of the public, it’s not always the safest option. For example, you may want to reconsider crowded holiday markets where pets are allowed--most pets receive far less training than service dogs--or parades or celebrations with loud noises.
We all know that the holidays, happy as we wish them to be, can be fraught, with mental health conditions adding another layer of difficulty. As a handler, a family member or host, there’s plenty we can do to make it as easy as possible for all.