Update, February 12, 2019: At the bottom of this page, we have now posted a captioned recording of the conference panel described in this release.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, February 1, 2019—
On a gentle winter weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, the tails were calmly wagging and the waving hubbub of conversation ebbed and flowed among fast friends. This was the Top Dog guide dog conference, a regular event that celebrates the partnerships between service dogs and those who are blind or who have low vision.
About 150 people squeezed into a small convention space, weaving past one another among round tables and down aisles of chairs. What set this year’s event apart was that two guests had service dogs for disabilities that aren’t related to vision.
These non-guide service dogs included a cream-colored Labrador Retriever—not out of place in a room of Labs, Retrievers, Shepherds, and Standard Poodles—and an eight-pound white and black Japanese Chin. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking “purse dog” when seeing the wide-eyed, fringe-eared Japanese Chin.
The cream-colored Lab “Zern” helps Ed Crane, founder of My Assistance Dog Inc., with his seizure disorder, while the tiny “Hestia” is trained to help Dr. Veronica Morris with the symptoms of her mental illness. Veronica Morris is the President of Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP), and she and Ed Crane both credit their past and present service dogs with allowing them to engage in the world when they otherwise wouldn’t be empowered to.
These guest service dog teams joined Top Dog to help turn around old ways of thinking in segments of the service dog community. Debbie Grubb invited them because she thinks this community is ready for change; she is emphatic that “The service dog movement is big enough to include all of us who have a legitimate right to be included in it.”
Working against a history of segregation
Many guide dog users at Top Dog could relate to the guests’ experiences and concerns. Of course, they all value their partners. Further, most want there to be a lot more education of businesses and the general public about how service dogs work and when a dog’s behavior merits its removal from a business, service dog or not.
Toni Eames, a fixture in the service dog community and President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), is a guide dog user who recognizes the need for more communication and education. She surprisingly relates that “Many blind folks are totally unaware of the tasks performed by other than guide dogs.”
Part of the problem has been the siloing of information within different service dog schools. Many guide dog users would only be familiar with what the schools tell them, for instance, about owner-trained psychiatric service dogs, because there was no line of communication between the two populations. It’s easy to believe over-hyped stereotypes in the media when you don’t know a real person with a reasonable story of doing their best to deal with challenging circumstances.
Fighting legislators for access
Actively removing this barrier, Eames joined Veronica Morris, Ed Crane, and Brad Morris on a panel presentation to explain what other service dogs do, how their users’ concerns are very similar, and how outside forces have conspired to divide and conquer people with disabilities when it comes to laws and access.
On this last point, the audience enthusiastically supported PSDP’s Director of Government Relations Brad Morris when he railed against the US Congress. He uses a power wheelchair, but says a service dog is not a good fit for him at this time.
The fight for disability rights is alive and kicking in the present, Brad Morris said, when just last year the House of Representatives actually passed a bill (HR 620) that activists agree would gut the protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The bill has not taken effect so far because the Senate did not consider it, but Brad Morris still believes the disability and service dog communities need to be united to fight off the ongoing attacks on access.
This Top Dog panel was hosted by Jenine Stanley, who is also a fixture in the service dog world and whose belief in the cause runs deep. She is a guide dog user who served with Brad Morris on the US Department of Transportation’s 2016 committee to update some of the disability-related flying regulations. These laws differ significantly from ADA regulations in how they single out service animal users with mental health disabilities with tougher barriers to airline travel.
That 2016 committee crafted a series of compromise positions with airline and advocate input, but these ultimately weren’t implemented. Stanley and Brad Morris were so convinced of the need to unite against divisive forces that after the half-year of meetings in Washington, DC, they created a loose coalition called “United Service Animal Users, Supporters, and Advocates” (USAUSA). USAUSA exists to consolidate the voices of relevant groups on big issues to ensure that service animal users’ rights aren’t eroded by outside interests or even internal divisions.
As a tangible sign of this kind of coalition effort, Stanley was proud to point out the festive, kelly green silk scarves she and Brad Morris wore to Top Dog. These “solidarity scarves” are a symbol, like a bracelet, of solidarity within the service dog user community—a willingness to respect and support the rights and responsibilities of service dog users regardless of disability type, dog breed, training origin, and so on.
Hope for progress in spite of tension
Will this symbolic scarf take hold, and will it signal any greater impact in the world of service dog advocacy? There is some hope for this kind of unity and movement.
Within the Top Dog audience, guide dog users like Penny Reeder nodded in agreement as they listened. She is President of Guide Dog Users, Inc. (GDUI), a major membership-based organization in the service dog community.
Reeder views the solidarity scarves idea as an opportunity to spark conversations that will continue to push the community in a better direction, saying that “Progress comes when we make the decision to listen to each other, recognize our similarities, and fight shoulder-to-shoulder for our common interests.”
Not everyone feels the same way in the service dog community. Some individuals were turned off by what they thought would be a froufrou session and opted out. Suturing up old divisions can take time.
But if you were listening closely at Top Dog, you could hear other conference-goers saying things like, “I was skeptical of other [non-guide] service dogs, but now I’m a believer.”
Are you interested in getting a solidarity scarf to show support? Any kelly green or other solid green scarf will do, but the ones worn by Jenine Stanley and Brad Morris are currently available from two sellers on Amazon (choose the “Fresh Green” color):
Note: PSDP is not endorsing Amazon or third-party sellers on Amazon, though PSDP does encourage the use of the charity-supporting AmazonSmile for those who shop on Amazon.