Educating people about service dogs

Terry, Cooler seek to educate public about service dogs; Orange and Imari know when it’s time to go to work.

The two yellow Labrador Retrievers are service animals and understand when it is time to help their handlers. Orange assists Chrissy Terry and Imari assists Joe Cooler as they navigate their surroundings.

Terry first lost sight in her left eye, later being referred by her eye doctor to MUSC where doctors originally thought the issue was a blot clot. After hours of tests and monitoring, she was sent home. Only a day later, she lost vision in her right eye, leaving her later with only some peripheral vision and no central vision. While returning to the doctor for a follow-up, it was discovered her optic nerves were dead and she was told she was permanently blind.

“Our perspective changed from thinking it would come back to what do we do now,” Terry said. “We enlisted the help of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind and they helped me get the mobility training to safely navigate my environment with a cane but honestly I hated the cane and wanted more independence.”

Terry then spoke to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Florida, applying and being accepted for admittance. She was later matched up with her guide dog, Orange, and the two trained for 26 days in preparation for what Terry would face when she came back home in her normal surroundings. She and her family reside in Hampton and she has had Orange for less than a year.  

Cooler was diagnosed in his thirties with macular degeneration and has been dealing with his condition for 18 years. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force, has no central vision but has peripheral vision. He applied for his dog, Amari, from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. He also went through training with his service animal and resides in Hampton. Over the past few years, Cooler has taken his service animal to nursing homes and to summer camps to help educate others about the service animals. He has had Amari for eight years. 

“Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a really good school, they base their training with your service animals on your environment and pair the service animals with your surroundings,” Cooler said. “At first, there were some adjustments and others had to get used to seeing me with Amari and understand that she was working when we were outside of my home.”

 Terry said Orange enjoyed working and knew when to work and when the harness was removed he knew he was not working. She explained that while at home, family members could pat him on the head, but to allow Orange to bond with her, she was the only one who could feed him or play with him.

“When Orange is in his harness, he knows he’s working and he likes to work,” Terry said. “These dogs are bred specifically for guide dog use. Many people do not understand that these dogs are very highly   trained to do specific jobs and specifically different jobs for different people.”

While Terry and Cooler both understand that their dogs look like pets, both felt the public needed to understand that their service animals are working when they are seen in public. Terry said there is a sign worn by Orange explaining he cannot be petted while working and this stays on him whenever he is outside of their home. These particular service dogs are different than any other service dogs, meaning they have a job to do and cannot be distracted from doing it.

“I am asked everywhere we go if people can pet Orange, sometimes people don’t ask and just pet him,” Terry said. “He has a sign on him that explains he should not be petted while working. The reasoning behind this is that he is a dog, he does get distracted, and when he gets distracted while he is in his harness guarding me, I have been hurt.”

Due to the need to further educate the public as to why Orange cannot be petted while he is in his harness, Terry explained why her dog was different from others who also utilize their service dogs in public, such as those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or therapy dogs.

“Some people get mad because they do not seem to realize that while PTSD or therapy dogs can be petted, they have very different jobs to do,” Terry explained. “A PTSD or therapy dog is for comfort; my guide dog is for my safety because my eyes don’t work for me. Even when Orange is laying down he cannot be petted and is hands off for everyone except me. I do pet him while he is in his harness as a part of his reward for doing a good job, that’s what he likes.”

Both Terry and Cooler stressed the importance of the state and federal laws which allow them to take their service dogs where they need for them to go, no matter the location.

“The general public needs to understand that there are state and federal laws in place to help keep the blind safe,” Terry said. “A certified, trained guide dog is legally allowed to go anywhere I go. I have even had people question if I can take him in a hospital, and I can under the law. My guide dog is not a pet, he is my eyes. Some don’t understand why I can take my service dog some places and they can’t take their pet, but it’s because their dog is not legally being used to help someone with a disability.”

Cooler, who has had his service dog for eight years, agreed with Terry concerning the public and the need for understanding when it comes to not petting a dog while it is working.

“Please be aware of people using a service animal,” Cooler said, “Don’t distract them while they are working. Once that harness is on, they’re working.”

Although she and Orange are out in public and sometimes encounter other people’s pets, Terry stressed the importance of not allowing someone’s dog to even play with Orange as this distracts him from his duties.

“Some people feel that it is okay if their pet wants to play with my guide while he is in the harness but this should not happen,” she said. “He is trained to work in the harness, he may get distracted by someone else’s pet because he is still a dog and not perfect and may want to play, but he knows his job to keep me safe and it upsets him when he can’t do his job.”

Cooler said one other important thing that others should keep in mind is if they have children to make sure they are educated about service animals.

“Although more adults want to pet Amari, it is important that they not pet her and to also teach their children not to try and pet not only a service dog but any dog that is not familiar to them,” he said. “Unless you ask the owner if you can pet the dog, then do not attempt to do so and make sure children understand that as well.”

While both Terry and Cooler want to educate the public about their service animals, they also want them to know just how helpful they are to them.

“Orange keeps me safe and he is working when we are out in public,” Terry said.

Cooler said he was happy to have Amari to help guide him through life.

“Amari travels everywhere with me, from airplanes to trains,” he said. “Having a service dog creates a bond and a friendship between us both. She’s not going to lead me into danger, it is a true bond of trust.”