What happens when interactions between a service dog team and the public go sideways? What do service dog handlers worry about when they go out with their service dog? I capitalized on the unique opportunity to pose a few questions to my friend, Bill Austin, about his experiences with his Great Dane, JP.

Bill is a veteran, serving over 30 years in the US Army and Delaware Air National Guard. Bill and JP paired up in May 2011. JP trained as a psychiatric service dog, specifically for PTSD/TBI. Bill is integral in JP’s training, as well as making numerous public appearances and supporting education on the value of service dogs can be to our veterans.

JP was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma in October 2018. Because of this, his right rear leg was amputated but he made a full recovery after five rounds of chemotherapy. He turned eight today, February 15th. For Bill, JP is so much more than a service dog; he’s a well-loved member of his family. You can follow JP’s journey on his own Facebook page, under JP’s Journey to PTSD Service Dog.

Our veterans deserve to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of when you cross their paths. Be kind, thank them for their service, and don’t assume that just because it’s not obvious why they have a service dog, that they are not fighting their own battles. What these dogs do for our veterans is remarkable!

What do you worry about the most when you are out with JP?

A: When I go into a place I never been before, the first thing that concerns me is “Am I going to be questioned and challenged on whether JP is a Service Dog?” This is always a concern, especially when I want to eat at a restaurant. I just want to be able to get into the store, look around or buy what I need and get out. There have been times when I have been questioned and try hard to not be confrontational. I try to remain calm and explain that JP is my service dog. I have a patch on JP’s vest that say “PTSD” on it. If I get angry and lose my temper, because I have PTSD, now all of a sudden “I am crazy.” NO! Most people, when they get angry, may yell, raise their voices! This is a normal reaction to being angry. But, I am not given that latitude because I have PTSD and I have a service dog to help me.

I have had some people who are resistant to my explanation but they let me in because I guess they fear a law suit. The second thing that bothers me is when I have to worry about people coming up to me and wanting to pet my dog. I have patches that say he is a “Service Dog,” “Disabled Vet,” “Working Dog Do Not Pet” and people still want to pet him. Even when I tell them they cannot pet him, they still try, or ask me if they can pet him and are petting him even before I can tell them not to. Seriously?! You don’t see them going up to people in wheel chairs asking for a ride or taking a blind person’s cane for a trial run. It’s like they never seen a dog before. Just leave me alone and let me get on my way.

So again, trying to help educate and not be ignorant to people, I take the time to explain a little bit about what JP does for me. This takes time, and because of that, it takes me longer to get in and out of a store. It’s not a 10 minute chore. I just have gotten to the point where I just don’t go in. I sit in my vehicle and my wife goes and does the shopping. Or if I do go in, I go all the way to the back isles so I won’t have to be confronted by people. I have even had people say to me “I can tell you’re not blind! Why do you have a Service Dog?” 

What is the worst experience you have ever had to deal with as a veteran with a service dog?

A: About two years ago, I was out at the East Coast. We were in a restaurant with family and friends. This woman made a big scene about JP, saying his butt was in her face, and they shouldn’t allow dogs in here or have another place away from everyone else. Someone took a video of this whole event and it literally went nationwide. It was on several television stations here in the United States, and even some news outlets overseas.

(You can read more about this horrific interaction at: https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/2017/09/20/delaware-city-argument-veterans-service-dog-goes-viral/684734001/)

Just this past June, my wife and I were in Virginia City, Montana. I walked into a candy store. A man came in and said “You’re not allowed to have your dog in here!” I said “Yes I am.” He proceeded to tell me I was wrong and I would have to leave. I even told him he was my service dog, that I knew my rights, and according to ADA Guidelines, the only places my service dog wasn’t allowed in was “Food Preparation Areas, and Sterile Environments.” He continues to challenge me.

Of course, I am getting angry and I told this guy some of the tasks JP helps me with. This man then goes “Oh well then he is allowed in here!” I said to him, “Yes I know that’s what I have been telling you.” I then asked him who he was and he told me he was a health code inspector from Kalispell, Montana. Being that he wasn’t the store owner, he had no right to challenge JP’s status.

On other occasions I have had parents whose children were crying or misbehaving and in order to get these children to stop their bad behavior the parent will say something like “oh, look at that big dog.” I have several groups of people I have given titles to because of their behavior.   For example the INFORMER (raises their voices) and says “oh, look at the big dog” or “oh look, it’s a horse. The EDUCATOR (gives information to those around them, in a loud voice) “it’s a service dog, which means we can’t play with or tough him.” Of course this causes everyone to look in my direction. Then, the COMENDIANS saying things like “I didn’t know they let horses in here” or “Where’s the saddle?” because JP is a Great Dane.  And once again it causes everyone to look in my direction.

What was the best experience you have ever had as a veteran with a service dog?

A: Having JP by my side! Knowing that he watches my back because of my startle reflex, called hyper vigilance. For example, the incident back on the East Coast when that lady verbally accosted us. JP was calm and he stayed by my side. At one point he even laid down along side me. 

When my flash backs are bad and he licks me in the face to wake me up so the flash back doesn’t become full blown. I dream in color, so when I have them, it makes things more intense and very vivid. In a social setting, knowing how to train JP for my needs, the way he behaves and acts when there is so much going on around him makes me feel good. People get to see what a good, well-trained and well-behaved service dog is like. It was he and I working, bonding and growing together.

I love him with all my heart! He has been my life line to getting me back to some sense of normality and being able to get out in the world from time to time. When I first got JP in 2011 and he was three months old at that point, I had him for two days when my wife said “Don’t you get it?” I said “Get what?” She said “This is the first time in two years that you smiled and laughed!” and I said “That’s because he brings me peace.”

What steps do you take to ensure JP is safe from other dogs when you go out? Do you have a specific strategy?

A: I try to remain calm, but I also watch the other dog. JP does not have aggression issues. A service dog CANNOT be a service dog if they have aggression issues. Add to this, if I start getting nervous or tense, JP feeds off my emotions. If I see the other dog(s) are tensing then I put distance between us, and place JP on my left side so I can block for him and protect him from becoming injured.

How do you feel about all the dogs being taken everywhere and being misrepresented as Service Dogs?

A:  I am truly angered by these people. I get it, they love their dogs! But this causes a lot of problems for those of us who really do have disabilities and need service dogs. They have their dogs and use these “extended leashes” and the dog is all over the place, misbehaving, etc. This is why those of us who have service dogs are challenged by businesses when we go in. It shouldn’t be allowed and the person(s) who does this should be fined heavily for doing so, not to mention, it’s a federal offense.

I don’t blame the business because they have rights and they are trying to ensure everyone’s visit there is good so they keep coming back. But these people who think they have the right to bring their house pet, where ever and call it a service dog so they can, are wrong. They should be held accountable for lying and misrepresenting their pet.

One time, I was in the local Walmart store. This woman had a big white dog on a leash, walking beside her. When that dog saw JP, he stared growling and almost toppled the cart trying to get at JP. I started saying “that’s not a service dog!” My wife blocked the dog and told the lady to get her dog under control, and we went down an open checkout lane to avoid them. That was wrong. That is not how a well-trained service dog behaves and that dog should have never been in the store.

What else do you think the general public needs to know about service dogs?

A: Training and education are the key to helping business owners understand what a service dog is, how they should be acting in the public, and what their rights are. Add to this, knowing the differences between a service dog, therapy dog or emotional support animal, and where they are allowed to go. Some people will interchange these titles when trying to share events, ideologies, etc. about a service dog, even though they are completely different.

Training is paramount. I am talking about the disabled person as well. They should have a very good understanding of why it is important for their service dog to be trained to the highest standards and to keep those standards even when training is completed. I believe we should have a database that will identify those individuals who have service dog and a number to identify that service dog to their owner. In order to verify such information, there should be a number where business or other establishments can call to verify the information. 

That the person who has a need for a service dog, have their doctor or therapist provide a letter on office letter head stating why the person would benefit from a service dog. This documentation would then be given to a professional trainer if the disabled person uses those services to help train their dog in becoming a service dog.

These “websites” that say “We Will Certify Your Dog to be a Service Dog” should be shut down! In the ADA Guidelines, the ADA mentions that these organizations and their paperwork is NOT acceptable. Therefore, they are scamming people out of their money, and will have no merit if provided in a court trial. Not to mention, they don’t even see the dog nor how it behaves so how can they “certify” the dog when they CANNOT even observe if the dog can perform tasks for the person.

I believe the fines imposed on those who knowingly and falsely represent their dogs as “service dogs” should receive a fine severe enough that it will impact the chances of them trying to do such behaviors again. Repeat offenders should face even stiffer penalties for their actions.

The word “service animal” should be removed from laws. Because it allows for people to say that their pet cat, pig, bird, etc. is their service animal, even though the ADA specifically states of a dog or, in extreme cases a mini horse, can be a service animal. This would also eliminate people from bringing in other types of animals.

What is the one thing you have gotten/learned from having a Service Dog that surprised you?

A: That you can Love again! War will test the very being of your soul. I shook my faith in God! I still believe in God…but after seeing the violence, the levels of trauma and my military brothers and sisters hurt, killed….well it really shook my faith. The very essence of people and existence.  You become numb to the amount of violence and wonder if the madness will ever stop. And then you come home only to hear people complain or gripe about absolutely little things. I couldn’t help but thinking “You haven’t got a clue.”  

I didn’t want to talk about it what I’d done, what I’d seen….I just wanted to put it away and never remember it. And then JP walked into my life! He was so small, so innocent, so trusting, so fragile and I held him in my arms and all of a sudden I felt this way of love of wanting to nurture this tiny creature. And the more I did this for him, the more he gave it back to me. 

Watching him grow from this clumsy little pup to growing into adulthood touched me in ways deep in my heart that words can’t describe.  God knows he is so much better than any medication the VA can give you. Through his love, his loyalty, his deep devotion, he melted that hard callous void left by war. He showed me that love still lived inside of me and that it was ok to love again and to believe in good.  

As I said earlier, I love him with my heart and I always will. I would lay down my life for him so that he may live if it ever comes to that. Just as I would for those I love. It’s definitely NOT something you see every day.

  • William H. Austin MSgt. (RET)