"No pets except service dogs,"
the signs on the doors read. But, increasingly, those with service dogs are being denied.
The message on a service canine's vest reads, "Working dog. Do not pet." But, too many people are nonetheless reaching out to a dog in working attire.
"The problem," said certified master dog trainer and military veterans helpmate Mary Peter, "is the public is so uneducated. And rude. Their actions are causing stress."
Peter and her students — military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury — want to change that.
At Peter's K9 Partners for Patriots, Peter has trained some 118 dogs and their military service owners — most from Hernando and Pasco counties — over the past two years.
Galvanizing them to action is a recent encounter Army vet and PTSD sufferer Bill Grant, 69, of Spring Hill endured at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church near his neighborhood. He and his quiet, well-behaved black Labrador mix, Maddy, were told to leave.
To help people better understand the consequences of PTSD and TBI, several veterans gathered recently to discuss their disabilities and share their stories.
"Our handicaps are invisible," admitted Army vet Tim Hennigan, 61, a Brooksville graduate of K9 Partners for Patriots. The uneducated can't see their fear of crowds, anxiety at new encounters, cold sweats at the unexpected, shock at loud noises, fearsome nightmares.
In Grant's experience, a nun told him he couldn't bring his dog inside.
"I said it was a service dog," Grant related.
Grant, with Maddy and his wife, were admitted, but told to sit in the "crying room," generally used by discomfited babies and their caregivers.
"Shortly," Grant continued, "(the nun) came running back and said the bishop said you have to leave. As we were walking out, the priest came running down. He made no eye contact, no nothing. He just escorted us out.
"The hair was standing up on my arm." Grant shuddered at the retelling.
Bishop Terence Fulham last week said the episode was "all a misunderstanding." He understood the nun to say Grant had a guard dog. "I said, 'We don't need anybody playing games,' and asked them to leave. I hadn't time to find out what was going on."
"As they were leaving," Fulham said, "I noticed a kind of pennant on the dog. I thought it might be a guide dog."
Informed later that it was a service dog, the bishop noted, "I've been here 20 years and never encountered that issue."
In a letter to the church, Peter wrote: "I am appalled at the treatment extended to this Army veteran and his service animal. He only came to pray in what he deemed was a holy place."
Mike Murphy of Spring Hill, afflicted with Army-related PTSD and TBI, was similarly treated at a Hernando Beach restaurant.
"Dogs are not allowed at my place," the owner told him.
"I talked to him for 10, 15 minutes," Murphy, 39, reported, "told him I have PTSD and am a DAV (disabled American veteran)."
The owner ultimately offered, "We can seat you in a back room."
Murphy and his Great Dane, Iris, walked out.
"I try to limit the attention that I get," Murphy explained.
Hennigan told of a disconcerting occurrence at a Spring Hill chain restaurant-bar. His big labradoodle, Leo, didn't fit completely under the table. After he and those at his table were served drinks, "the waitress said my dog couldn't lay there, that she couldn't get by."
Summoning the manager and after a bit of back and forth, Hennigan and his party prepared to leave. The owner offered to comp their drinks.
"I paid," he said, "and I made it obvious (to those around)."
Hennigan ended the tale with a chuckle, saying, "We went to (a restaurant) across the street, and they even offered a water pan for the dog."
"But it upsets you," said Grant. "You're the center of attention, and you don't want to be. They come up to you and ask what your problem is. People are mean. A lot."
On other occasions — at dentist and physician offices, on commercial aircraft, in retail stores, even at veterans medical facilities — those in charge have asked for dogs' service animal registrations, the veteran's affliction or disability, written proof of disability from a physician and written proof that the service animal is necessary. The veterans and their dogs have also been denied admission on the grounds that another patron might have allergies or asthma, or because the dog might bite.
All are no-nos, according to federal law.
"All they're allowed to ask," Peter said, "is 'Is it a service dog?' and 'What does it do for you?' "
"The law only has two outs," said Hennigan, who worked in law enforcement in the Army and in civilian life. A service animal and its handler can be asked to leave if the animal is disruptive or if it evacuates itself on the premises.
In everyday outings, the veterans' trials do not diminish; they're just different. Misguided queries and even well-wishers impinge on nearly every outing.
"Everybody wants to pet your dog," said Grant. "They make us anxious."
"Then they get confrontational," Murphy said of some people he has encountered in public places.
"I give them the full spiel about service dogs," Hennigan said. "They don't realize our disability is we have a hard time with people. Our disability wants us to be alone."
Murphy noted, "I go into Walmart, and a 10-minute thing sometimes takes 35 minutes. Everybody wants to stop you. It's, like, I've got things to do. I don't have time, so I give them my business card."
Written in the imagined words of Iris, it reads in part: "Please don't distract me. I am not a pet. If you are distracting me, I have a harder time figuring out if my handler needs me. It's my job to help him. I want to be good at my job."
Amateur dogs also are invading the turf of professionally trained service dogs.
"Everybody is bringing in dogs. Lots of fakes," said Hennigan. "We probably see one every time we go out."
Fakes are easily spotted, said Murphy. "They'll be acting out. It puts our dogs in jeopardy."
Peter bridled at a posting she saw on the Internet. "For $199," she said, "they'll send you an ID card and a (canine) vest so you can take your dog anywhere."
Murphy has suggested a standardized test nationwide for any dog seeking to be designated as a service animal, whether professionally trained or owner/handler trained. "That would get rid of all the fakes," he said.
"When I proposed it on social media," Peter added, "I got death threats from all over the country."
The veterans are hopeful that airing their fears and frustrations will educate more people.
They themselves learned from Bishop Fulham that churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Said Hennigan, a self-described complainer to members of Congress: "Now, I'll have another job to do."