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Legislation would provide more rights to guide dog trainers

PALMETTO -- Jennifer Gerrity took Kenny out for a training session.

She strapped the almost 2-year-old Goldador into his harness Thursday afternoon and he was immediately in work mode.

As they approached a corner, Gerrity tapped a pole.

“Find your post,” she said.

A focused Kenny stopped and looked to the pole.

His reward, a few pats on the head and his fair share of “good boy.”

“He works for affection,” Gerrity said.

Gerrity has been training service dogs such as Kenny at Southeastern Guide Dogs for the past three years. A big part of that training includes getting dogs familiar with social settings.

Those public outings don’t always go smoothly, however, and have actually helped spark a bipartisan push in the Florida Legislature to increase the rights of individuals who train guide dogs.

“We have heard of places where puppy raisers are asked to leave, and guide dog users have been kicked out of restaurants when they have every right to be there,” said Jennifer Bement, public relations specialist at Southeastern Guide Dogs. “Guide dogs do have full access rights anywhere the general public can go.”

In order for a dog to be well trained, he or she needs exposure to public situations as a puppy, Bement explained.

Gerrity said she has been kicked out of restaurants and shopping malls, and has had trouble getting onto planes because people wrongfully assume she isn’t allowed to have the animal.

“It feels terrible,” Gerrity said. “It feels like they’re treating me like a second-class citizen.”

To combat discrimination of any kind against those who train service animals, House Bill 1077 is being sponsored by State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

The legislation was filed Monday and, if it passes, would prohibit discrimination of guide dog owners in various situations such as when it comes to housing.

The legislation makes it clear that a service dog would be entitled to full privileges in all housing.

It would also allow for the use of guide dogs in public and private schools, and provide a punishment to those who knowingly and fraudulently represent themselves as the owner or trainer of a guide dog.

“One of the problems is trainers have a difficult time getting the dogs into public places because people say, ‘This isn’t a real guide dog, it’s in training,’ ” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Raising a guide dog

When a Southeastern Guide Dogs prospect is about 3 months old, it is sent to live with a puppy raiser until it is anywhere from 14 to 18 months old. Puppy raisers are required to take puppies on social outings to get them exposed to various situations, such as restaurants, airports or malls.

From there, dogs go back to campus for about six months of intensive training, during which they learn more than 40 commands. After about two years, they are ready to be paired with a visually impaired individual.

“You take them everywhere and that’s part of the process,” said Kriseman, who is also a puppy raiser.

Current laws protecting raisers and trainers are a bit fuzzy, Kriseman said.

When Gerrity is asked to leave a location, she says she normally fights back by trying to educate.

This usually means having someone from Southeastern Guide Dogs or an expert in the Americans with Disabilities Act speak to a store owner or hotel manager.

That method usually works, said Gerrity, who added she would like to see the law become more clear.

If passed, the legislation would also make it a crime to pass off a nonservice dog with a fake vest or harness.

“Other states have laws in place against fake service dogs and owners who knowingly use a cloak that they buy online,” Kriseman said.

No such laws are in place in Florida.

“This is certainly not a partisan issue,” Kriseman said. “All we are looking to do is clarify the law and make it better for those who are disabled already so they do not have their rights infringed.”

According to its website, Southeastern Guide Dogs has provided guide dogs to those with visual impairments since 1982. It is “accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation in Reading, England, and is a member of the Council of U.S. Dog Guide Schools.”

GUIDE DOG TIMELINE

Up to 2 weeks: Puppies spend time with their mother and experience human contact through interaction with puppy handlers.

2 to 6 weeks: Puppies begin the early socialization process with volunteers. This includes collar and leash exposure and early housebreaking.

6 to 8-9 weeks: Puppies are introduced to the general public in “puppy hugging” sessions, exposing them to a variety of different people, sights and smells.

8-9 weeks to 14-18 months: Puppies are sent to live with puppy-raiser families throughout the southeastern United States.

14-18 months to 2 years: Puppies come back to campus and go into “in-harness training.” This is six months of intensive training that teaches the dogs more than 40 commands.

2 to 8-10 years: Dogs are paired with visually impaired individuals.

8-plus years: When the dogs retire they may stay with their handler as a pet or in some cases might go back to the family that raised them as a puppy.

Source: Southeastern Guide Dogs

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