Dollar has a job.
The 2-year-old yellow lab heads left when Rob Messervy steers him left, away from the bench in the sun and inside the Great Plains Health Pavilion. When Messervy finds a seat and sits down inside the doctors’ office, Dollar sits down too.
But as Messervy, of Ogallala, explains Dollar’s job and the training he went through to be here, Dollar looks up to Messervy, asking a silent question: Is it OK?
Messervy has retinitis pigmentosa, which, according to the Foundation Fighting Blindness, “refers to inherited diseases causing retinal degeneration.”
“I’m legally blind,” Messervy said.
Messervy can still see a little bit, though for the most part, Dollar acts as his eyes.
But Messervy knows that Dollar is looking to him for approval. Finally, Messervy gives the reporter permission to scratch behind Dollar’s ears.
Messervy has had a guide dog since 2011. His first guide dog retired.
“She’s now our pet,” he said.
Messervy wishes he could take his first guide dog out in public, but “I know the rules,” he said. He sees others who break the rules, bringing animals that clearly aren’t service dogs in public.
The rules are simple.
To obtain a service dog, you must first be diagnosed with a disability. Some service dogs are guides for the blind, like Dollar. Others can alert someone who is about to have a seizure or anxiety attack, or when the person is having a hard time due to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A service dog agency then works with a potential owner to find a dog that suits their lifestyle and needs,” according to an article on rover.com.
Messervy also had to pass a physical through the International Guide Dog Federation, which wants to know the guide dog will be doing his or her job consistently as well, he said.
“They don’t want the dog just sitting around your house doing nothing.”
According to the American with Disabilities Act, business owners can ask someone who has a service dog two questions: 1. Is that a service dog? And 2. What service does that dog provide for you?
When Messervy lived in Colorado, he said, he faced some problems taking a dog inside businesses, but has only faced the problem once since moving to Nebraska. Once on a shopping trip to North Platte, a downtown tattoo shop employee told Messervy to get Dollar out of the business.
The employee said he was trying to keep a clean shop, Messervy said.
Messervy asked if the person had any knowledge about service dogs, and ultimately left the shop.
Michael Schroeder’s dog, Sargent, offers separation between Schroeder, a military veteran, and other people. Sargent also alerts Schroeder to impending seizures, and panic or anxiety attacks.
Schroeder blames the misconceptions about guide dogs, as well as the influx of misbehaving dogs in other places, on the ease of access to obtain an “emotional support dog,” he said.
According to the rover.com article, emotional support dogs provide therapeutic benefits to people with mental, intellectual or physical disabilities. Emotional support dogs can be allowed on airplanes and in any kind of housing.
“In order to receive an emotional support animal designation, the animal’s owner must fit the medical definition of a disability, receive a diagnosis by a doctor or mental health professional, and receive a letter stating the animal provides benefits to the owner with regard to the diagnosed disability,” according to the rover.com article.
While under federal law emotional support dogs aren’t allowed everywhere in public, they’re also not required to undergo the same training as a service dog, the article states.
Some sponsored Google results for registering your animal as a service animal promise completion in “three easy steps.” The steps cost as low as $79, but the “proceed to checkout” option doesn’t appear to require any note from a doctor or medical professional.
“There’s the right way to do it, and then there’s the wrong way to do it,” Schroeder said.
The best way to tell if a dog isn’t a trained service dog is if it tries to engage with other dogs or people or misbehaves, Schroeder said. People should ask for permission from a service dog’s owner before engaging.
“Everywhere you or I would go, he has to be comfortable going, too,” Schroeder said.
Messervy added that his dog is expected to be well-groomed, with clean teeth.
Not all encounters are negative. A person once surprised Schroeder with a Walmart gift card in the store, as a way to thank the veteran.
“I am so, so sorry I did not catch her name,” Schroeder said. “That blew me away.”
Schroeder went through JAVELAN, a nonprofit in Omaha that helps veterans obtain service dogs.
“We’re not just handing out pets for vets,” said Bob Dean, one of the founders. He added that another program by that name does that. “It’s a task-trained dog.”
Veterans provide documentation of their military status and their disability each year.
The organization began with Dean’s wife, Charlotte, who suffers non-combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Charlotte found it hard to leave the house, let alone complete tasks like going to the grocery store, Dean said.
Going to doctor’s appointments in Minnesota, she learned about service animals for veterans, but also learned that they can cost thousands of dollars.
Charlotte asked someone else who trained her dog, and from that woman learned of Russell Dillon, who was training veterans to train their service dogs as a free service.
Charlotte now has Jack, a mixed-breed.
“She jumped on an airplane back in February, and flew to Florida to see her cousin,” Dean said. “I credit all that to Jack.”
When asked what Jack provides as a service, Charlotte says he keeps her “in the here and now,” Dean said. He went on to say that the dog can nudge her and “she realizes, hey, something’s going on. It brings her back into reality.”
The Deans networked with Dillon, and established JAVELAN, an acronym for Jack Assisting Veterans Enjoy Life Again.
In March 2017, the organization became a registered nonprofit, to help fund the training and the dogs.
“Every dime that we’ve raised” goes back to the program, Dean said.
Instead of training the dogs, Dillon trains the veterans how to train their service dogs, Dean said. If a dog younger than 5 is already in the home, they train that dog — and yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Other dogs are rescued through Omaha-area organizations, stepping outside of the belief that retrievers and German shepherds are the best kinds of service dogs.
For one veteran, training his dog meant to teach it to be on alert when it sniffed a mouth swab of low blood sugar versus a mouth swab of normal blood sugar, Dean said.
Veterans who receive a dog through the program cannot be homeless.
“We do try our best to make sure the dog is going to be well taken care of,” Dean said.
Other veterans who have a breed, such as a golden retriever, in mind purchase their own dog.
“We’ve had several veterans who at the end have donated the cost of training back to us,” Dean said.
Dean has mixed feelings about increasing regulations for service dogs. It would be helpful if the government would “come out and say, here are the laws,” Dean said.
“Our fear is that organizations with deep pockets will come out and say, ‘Use our certification.’”
Dean said that JAVELAN’s certification is more strenuous than international and national organizations that some consider standard.
Still, people should know the rules established in the ADA both for obtaining a service or emotional support dog, and for how to act when they come across one.
“When you come up to a service dog, don’t try to pet them unless you ask first,” he said.