It’s been a long, hard road for guide dog owners and their trainers in the state of Florida. Mostly, a lack of public knowledge has led to discrimination against the exceptional pups. But, a proposed Florida law designed to protect guide dog owners and trainers was filed in December. This article by Paradise Afshar of the Miami Herald outlines the specifics of the proposed law and how it will help Florida’s guide dogs.
Proposed Florida Law Will Protect Guide Dog Owners and Trainers
PALMETTO — Kenny went into work mode the moment Jennifer Gerrity strapped the 2-year-old golden retriever-Labrador mix into his harness for a training session.
As they approached a corner, Gerrity tapped a pole. “Find your post,” she said.
A focused Kenny stopped and looked at the pole. His reward: a few pats on the head and his fair share of “Good boy.”
“He works for affection,” said Gerrity, who lives in the Tampa Bay town of Palmetto, home of Southeastern Guide Dogs.
She has been training service dogs like Kenny for the past three years. A big part of the process involves getting dogs familiar with social settings.
Those public outings don’t always go smoothly, however, and the issue has prompted a bipartisan push in the Florida Legislature to insure the rights of Floridians who train and use 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, spokeswoman for Southeastern Guide Dogs, which has been training canines for the visually impaired since 1982.
“Guide dogs do have full access rights anywhere the general public can go.”
In order for a dog to be well trained, it 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.”
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, thinks legislation can help. Filed in December, his House Bill 1077 would prohibit discrimination against guide dog owners in housing accommodations. It would also allow for the use of guide dogs in public and private schools, and provide penalties for anyone who 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.
When a Southeastern Guide Dogs prospect is about 3 months old, it is sent to live with a puppy raiser until it is 14 to 18 months old. Puppy raisers are required to take the animals on social outings in places like restaurants, airports and malls.
Then the dogs return to campus for about six months of intensive training. After about two years, they are ready to be paired with a visually impaired person.
“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, he 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.
If passed, the legislation would also make it a crime to pass off a non-service 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.”
Read more here. Have you ever witnessed such discrimination against a guide dog owner or trainer? How do you feel about the proposed Florida law that will protect guide dog owners and trainers? Tell us your comments below!