SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Having a service dog doesn’t need to be the hardest part about some people’s disabilities. However, with the stigma associated with the use of animals as medical devices, it can easily become one of the most difficult aspects of existing with a disability.
WSAV NOW’s Angel Colquitt spoke with three individuals who are service dog handlers about their experiences living in Savannah and surrounding areas.
Jennnifer Lempesis trains service dogs at Working Wonders Dog Training and also runs a community support group for service dog handlers.
“When you’re disabled or you live with a chronic illness, you’re already isolated enough… it kind of gives you like a space to connect with people,” Lempesis said of the support group.
“It’s not done with ill intent, but it does get really exhausting,” Lempesis said.
Her biggest wishes for people living in the Savannah area revolved around education.
“One of the biggest key things that, you know our community could do is just people need to better educate themselves,” she said.
“When I go out one of my biggest and most common access issues is that people don’t know what a service dog is, or they don’t know what service dogs are allowed to do and what they aren’t allowed to do,” Lempesis said.
She explained that the resources for educating oneself on this topic are readily available. There are government websites like the one linked here that answer questions people may have surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and what the ADA says about service animals.
“It seems like something that is not invested in enough especially in a business owner level here in Savannah, it’s not invested enough,” she said.
“[People with disabilities] are not the minority anymore. You have got to educate yourself and be prepared to accommodate these people.” Lempesis said.
Taylor Lantiegne is a small business owner and also a service dog handler. She said that she agreed that there was more that could be done by business owners to recognize both their rights and the rights of service dog handlers.
“I think a lot that business owners don’t know what a service dog is. And they kind of you know, I feel like there’s an epidemic of fake service dogs out there with registration, which is not a real thing,” Lantiegne said.
Lantiegne said she hoped that business owners would educate themselves on service dogs so that they could know what to do in situations where they suspect a fake service dog is being presented to them while also not causing undue stress on real service dog handlers who are trying to be patrons of their establishment.
“If they’re acting unruly or you know, using in the bathroom all over the store or being aggressive or disruptive- They can remove the dog, service dog or not. It doesn’t matter. If they’re, you know, doing undue burden on the business. You can remove them,” Lantiegne pointed out.
Lempesis said that she will avoid certain stores just because their education on service dogs is lacking. This lack of education ends up harming the handlers of the service dogs. Lempesis described getting yelled at by store employees for her dog engaging in regular service dog behaviors.
“The burden should not fall on disabled people and chronically ill people to have to educate you on laws that you should know as an employee or as a business owner,” she said.
Lempesis said she also wished more people were educated on the fact that the tasks that service dogs engage in may not always look a certain way.
“Another assumption people will make about service dogs is that service dogs never bark or whine. Actually, some service dogs as part of their medical alert are trained to get loud,” she explained.
“I think the greater public needs to understand that disabled people should have equal access to all services that everybody else has access to- even if they have a service dog,” Monet McCain said.
The third person who spoke with WSAV NOW was Monet McCain. McCain is a service dog handler and attendee of the aforementioned service dog support group who lives in Brunswick. She frequents Savannah for meetings, shopping and other social events.
She said that the main thing that she wishes people would realize about service dogs is that they aren’t supposed to interact with them.
McCain explained how this can be distracting for service dogs, who are meant to be staying on task and focusing on their job.
When you distract a service dog, even if the dog seems happy, you could be putting the handler in danger. Many service dogs are trained to detect seizures, drops in blood sugar and panic attacks. If they are not focused and unable to alert their handler of an impending episode, the consequences for some could be deadly.
While the dog may be excited for the attention, that shouldn’t be seen as a go ahead for you to continue interacting with it.
“I have to correct that behavior immediately,” McCain said.
McCain also spoke about her experiences being a person of color who is also a service dog handler. She said that there are not many people of color who are service dog handlers.
“Personally, I think it’s because it’s a lot harder for Black people to get diagnosed with a disability or chronic illness,” McCain said. In her experience, she was told for years that she was just anxious and had depression before she was eventually diagnosed with her chronic illness.
“I think that’s why a lot of Black people don’t have access to this form of medical treatment, just because they can’t get equal access to medical treatment in general.” She said.
In terms of Savannah specifically, McCain said that she usually sticks to visiting places she knows will be welcoming towards service dogs- or at least won’t be openly antagonistic.
She said that she’s seen and heard of so many confrontations that did not end well for the service dog team that she, as a nonconfrontational person, chooses to avoid situations where she’s worried she will be harassed.
You can learn more about how you can help the service dog handler community by reading through the ADA linked above. If that is not accessible to you, you can also listen to the explainer video linked here.