The most dangerous situation Christina Holtzclaw has ever been in with her service dog happened on the long escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Holtzclaw, the assistant director at the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living in Rome, is blind. Felicia is her guide dog. She said she was riding up the escalator, nearing the top, when a man started playing with Felicia — distracting her from her work.
“When I’m on an escalator I keep my hand on the railing because you can feel it start to flatten when it’s time to get off,” Holtzclaw said. “But I had to take my hand off to settle Felicia down and we both missed the step.”
Holtzclaw twisted her ankle and broke her toe. The man apologized and went on his way.
“I used to be more lenient about letting people pet my service animals. Not anymore,” she said.
The story was one of many shared Wednesday at a seminar on service animals and the law hosted by the CIL. While most of the focus was on accessibility and the bonds they develop with their dogs, it was clear that children and other strangers approaching the animals is a common problem.
One woman has a fake name for her dog that she gives when asked, so she doesn’t have to worry about people calling it from across the street. A man spoke of a big service dog — traded later for a more compatible animal — that occasionally pulled him from his wheelchair in its excitement at being singled out for attention.
Attaching a sign to the animal’s vest that says “I am working, please do not pet me” often draws people closer to read it, the attendees agreed.
“Sometimes I just ignore them when they come up,” said Chris Holcomb, an independent living coordinator at the center. “It’s not being rude. If I pay attention to the person distracting Mr. Cotton, it feeds the situation. That can be dangerous to the handler and to the dog.”
Still, Holcomb said Mr. Cotton also can be a welcome ice-breaker in secure environments. His service dog is mobility-trained, able to do things like open doors, pick up items and even turn light switches on and off.
“I’m super-independent so that’s not a skill we use often,” Holcomb said with a laugh. “Retrieving is his favorite thing to do, and if I lay out the clothes I want to wear he can bring them to me by name.”
Kathy Baker, another independent living coordinator, trained her service dog for hearing. Baby “wants to just be a dog now,” so Baker said she usually leaves her at home. But she noted that hearing dogs are different to work with than guide or mobility dogs.
“Instead of giving them signals, you’re learning to look for their signals,” she said. “For example, if their ears go up when there’s a knock on the door, you learn to look for that.”
Just as service animals differ in skills, they also differ from emotional support animals, which are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It’s the training for a specific task that separates comfort animals from service animals — although animals trained to sense and assist with an anxiety attack qualify as psychiatric service animals under the ADA. Holtzclaw said she gets a lot of calls about emotional support animals from people wondering if they must be accommodated by law.
“A lot of that is being abused, and that makes it harder for those of us who need our service animals,” she said. “People buy cheap fake vests and pass off their pets, that woman on the plane with an ‘emotional support squirrel’ ... With things like that happening, they had to tighten up their laws.”
Tonia Clayton said she needed to produce a health certificate for her service dog, Jamie, when they flew to Washington, D.C., last week but encountered no problems on the trip. Jamie is the second guide dog for Clayton, who is blind, and she never wants to be without one again.
“Before I got one, I was reluctant to walk around with my white cane. ... When I did, I was free in the world. I was independent. I’m not going to be running into people and saying ‘excuse me, excuse me’ all the time,” she said with a smile.