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November 3, 2002

Dogs, at their service

From:, VA
Nov. 3, 2002

North Stafford resident Nanci Seiden wants to educate others about the role--and size--of service dogs.

The Free Lance-Star

Disabled owner relies on Peanut, his skills

SERVICE DOGS are animals trained to help their disabled owners, and not all of them are the size of German shepherds.

Some are no bigger than powder puffs, but they still have a huge impact on their owners.

"I'd be lost without Peanut," said Nanci Seiden, who lives in Aquia Harbour in North Stafford. "I just depend on him a lot, in ways people don't understand."

Peanut is a four-pound Pomeranian with dark brown eyes and fiery-colored fur about the same shade as his owner's hair.

He's also a hearing aid to his master, who was born deaf in one ear and has limited hearing in the other.

So, Peanut the Pomeranian barks or bounces around on spindly legs to let Seiden know when the phone rings or someone is at the door. He licks her face or pats his paw on her cheek if the alarm or smoke detector goes off and she doesn't react.

Peanut is one of an estimated 20,000 animals across the country trained to perform specific tasks for their disabled owners. But he doesn't fit the typical image, that of a guide dog for the blind or a large Labrador assigned to someone in a wheelchair.

Maybe that's why he and Seiden, 49, attract a lot of attention. Much of it is friendly, as women and children point to the "cute widdle puppy."

Some of it is not so good.

Owners of local discount stores and groceries have detained Seiden at service desks or told her she can't take her pet where food is prepared and sold. Fellow restaurant customers have complained about having a dog at the table next to them. A passenger train in California put her off at a depot--a no-longer-open depot in an isolated part of town--because she refused to keep Peanut in a cage or in the compartment designated for pets.

These days, Seiden shows her certificate, which states Peanut is a trained service dog. She tries to explain that people and their service animals are allowed anywhere other customers go, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And she gets frustrated with employees and managers who deal with the public every day and don't know the law. She's called the corporate headquarters of several businesses and is considering a lawsuit against one.

"My whole thing is, excuse me, why aren't these people, who are working in the service industry, being trained properly?"

Seiden admits she gets flustered because the service-dog issue is one more thing she has to battle.

She suffers from reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, a condition triggered by a simple accident, such as a twisted ankle or broken arm. It causes a short circuit in the nervous system, then spreads throughout the body, bringing on chronic pain.

Seiden sometimes has trouble with the aches--and the pain of having to define Peanut's role to others.

The disabilities act says she doesn't have to do any explaining or show any proof of the dog's training. All business owners can do is ask if the dog is a service animal.

Beyond the hearing-related help at home, Peanut provides a lot of comfort to Seiden, said her friend, Sharon Nuzman of North Stafford.

Nuzman, who is physically disabled, has been around service animals for 30 years and has never seen this kind of relationship between dog and master.

"This dog lives, breathes and sleeps her needs," she said. "Sometimes it's just a level of comfort that he brings. She does not deal well when he is not with her."

That's why Seiden takes Peanut to the hair salon, grocery store or pharmacy at Wal-Mart, where she buys hundreds of dollars in medicine a month.

She's been in North Stafford for six years, and people at most of her regular stops recognize her. A hairdresser at Impressions Hair Skin & Nails in Aquia Towne Center recently pointed to the dog in Seiden's arms and said to a customer, "That's Peanut. He brings Nanci in every week to get her hair done."

It's when stores open, expand or change management that Seiden has problems.

But people with service dogs face access issues across the country, said Karen Miller. She's a director at Delta Society, an organization in Washington state that educates the public about the role of service animals.

Her agency gets more than 5,000 complaints a year from disabled people who have been told they can't bring their dogs into public places.

People have a particularly hard time accepting ones that don't fit the big-dog stereotype.

"If you showed up with a Pomeranian, and you didn't look like you were blind, and you said, 'This is my service dog,' people would probably laugh at you," Miller said.

The disabilities act passed 12 years ago, but it's still not widely known, she said.

Things get even more confusing when state laws say one thing and the disabilities act, which is a federal law, says another.

For instance, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulates state food laws. In its written regulations for retail food stores, there's only one line about service animals. It reads: "Guide dogs accompanying blind persons shall be permitted in sales areas."

So a store manager could assume that Pomeranians like Peanut, as well as every other service animal except guide dogs, are not allowed in food stores.

That's not correct, either, a department spokesperson said. The department allows all types of service animals in stores; it just hasn't updated its regulations since 1986.

Seiden would like to clear things up for state agencies and businesses that are behind the times. She'd like them to realize that the Americans with Disabilities Act takes priority over local or state laws.

Seiden also wishes that businesses would react the way the management did at North Stafford's International House of Pancakes.

Seiden had a bad experience there in January. Customers complained because Peanut was at the table, and waiters were rude to her, she said.

She got in touch with Stephen Bennett, director of operations at several stores. He knew many details of the disabilities act, such as the size and location of handicapped parking spaces.

But he didn't realize there were service animals beyond seeing eye dogs. He talked with Seiden several times and welcomed her suggestion to meet with store management.

Seiden, a corporate manager before she went on disability in 1992, will give a seminar to IHOP employees in November. She'll present educational materials from the Delta Society about the types and tasks of service animals.

She's made the same offer to managers in other local businesses, but they've declined.

She'll keep pushing the issue, not just for herself and Peanut but for others who may not want to call attention to their disability. "I guess I don't want anyone else to go through what I've had to," she said.
Disable vet raises funds for service dog

ART MAGER IS in need of a friend--a four-legged friend.

The double amputee, whose left hand also is paralyzed, faces many challenges in his daily life. Sometimes even minor obstacles turn out to be insurmountable.

Retrieving a book that he has dropped or getting through a door before it slams against his motorized wheelchair can be tough.

"I need some help; I really do," the 66-year-old Unionville man says.

Mager, a Vietnam War veteran and career Army man, is hoping that help will come from a black Labrador retriever named Chico.

"I've spent some time with him and he's a well-trained dog," Mager says.

Chico, who just turned 2, is completing his schooling and should be ready by the end of the year. Mager is hoping he can raise enough money between now and then to buy the Lab as both a companion and a helper.

Chico is being trained by a nonprofit organization called Service Dogs of Virginia. Located in Keswick, near Charlottesville, the group headed by Peggy Law provides dogs specifically trained to help disabled people.

"Our dogs help them live a full life," Law says.

Service Dogs of Virginia, which began about two years ago, placed its first dog several months ago with a disabled Radford University student. Chico will be the group's second dog.

"This dog would be very important to me," Mager says. "It is sometimes very difficult to even open and close doors, especially commercial doors. A dog could keep the door open until I get in."

Law says Chico is able to retrieve a telephone, turn on a light or even stand on his hind legs and place money on a store counter. These are all tasks a healthy person takes for granted, but ones a man strapped into a wheelchair often finds overwhelming.

To get Chico, however, Mager must come up with $8,500. That's a lot for someone on a military pension.

The Piedmont Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America found out about Mager and is trying to help. They have held one fund-raiser on his behalf and hope to hold more.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do," says Sam Thompson, president and one of the founders of the chapter.

Thompson has also put Mager in touch with the Paralyzed Veterans of America and that group is trying to help, too.

If Mager gets Chico, he and the Lab will still need two or more weeks of working together before they will be ready to perform as a team. Keswick, however, is less than an hour's drive from Unionville, and Mager feels he can handle that.

Mager was drafted when he was 25. "My father-in-law was on the draft board and when my wife and I split up he made sure they got me," he says.

He spent 21 years in the Army before a stroke forced him to retire in 1982.

Poor circulation necessitated the removal of both legs about a year ago. Now the vet, who served in the Delta region of Vietnam in 1969, often finds himself at the mercy of his surroundings.

Thompson believes Mager's exposure to Agent Orange during his stint in Vietnam may have been responsible for his circulation problem.

Mager is not married, but a female companion helps him at night. While she is at work, however, Mager is alone in his home.

Chico, who began training as a puppy, is now in the final stages of schooling. But training is only part of the process, Law says.

"We also have to wait until the dog becomes mature and reliable," she says.

Law says that a service dog can be more than just a companion and a helper.

"Sometimes people feel awkward about going up and talking to someone in a wheelchair, but everyone wants to come and pet the dog," she says. "A dog like Chico can help break the ice."

Animals offer independence for so many with disabilities

For Andy the black Lab, slipping on a blue pack is the same as punching a time clock.

It means it's time for work. His pack conveys the same message to others. It reads: "Please Don't Pet Me, I'm Working."

Five days a week, Andy assists Anne Sullivan, the office manager at the disAbility Resource Center in Fredericksburg. He picks up paper clips, bottle caps or any other objects Sullivan drops and can't reach from her wheelchair.

He also gets files or books that are buried deep in cabinets.

"He makes me more independent," said Sullivan. "Before, I was forever asking somebody to get something for me, and I like being able to do things for myself."

Andy originally was the service dog for Rob Boyd, the center's executive director. He hoped Andy would help with his balance as he used a walker.

When that didn't work out, Sullivan gave him a try. She doesn't have room for him at her house, so Andy takes off his pack on nights and weekends and goes home with office administrator Karen McDowell.

Sullivan didn't know how useful Andy could be. "He's proved to me that a service dog is the best thing for a person with a disability," she said.

Studies show service dogs can save their owners thousands of dollars by eliminating the need for paid human help.

A 1996 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association considered the initial cost of training a service dog--which can run as high as $10,000--and the annual expenses of food and veterinary bills.

Then it factored how much a disabled person paid for human help, from $8 to $12 an hour. Having a service dog around could save $8,000 to $16,000 a year, the study indicated.

More people are acknowledging the value of service animals, especially as they assist with more kinds of disabilities.

There are currently five categories of service dogs, according to the Delta Society, an organization in Washington state.

Guide dogs help the blind, and hearing dogs assist those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Mobility dogs help people with physical disabilities in varied ways. They may open doors, turn on lights, help their owners get dressed or retrieve objects, as Andy does.

Medical-alert dogs sense on-coming conditions in their masters, such as seizures, heart attacks or diabetic reactions.

Psychiatric-support dogs are the newest type of service animals. They help owners who may be afraid to go out in public by shielding them from others or nuzzling them when they freeze during a panic attack.

Dogs are mostly used as service animals, but cats and certain types of monkeys have also been trained for specific tasks.

There are even miniature horses that offer the same help as Seeing Eye dogs.

Copyright 2002, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.