Home Commentary I Am Not Safe

I Am Not Safe

By Sarah Potok

I often do not leave the house. When I do, my guide dog and I turn our noses to less populated areas of town. If we turn toward the two main streets of Montpelier, that is where dog owners galore bring their dogs, mostly untrained, barking, lunging, and allowed to travel as far as their long leashes will allow.

I am not safe when my dog is distracted and unable to do her job. She needs to indicate to me up or down curbs, steer me clear of the many holes in our weather-beaten sidewalks, and pull me right or left to avoid people walking with their attention glued to their phones. Add some street work, ill-placed sandwich boards, hurrying pedestrians, and the potential for mishap percolates all around me. When a dog lunges at my dog, I am at risk for injury or a heart-stopping moment. What if a child gets entangled in the fuss? It’s not just me who might be caught in the fray.

I appreciate those people who actually train their dogs to behave in public, not allowing them to wander at will in downtown Montpelier. That said, I am not a fan of even the best trained dogs walking in town with no leash. Dogs have instincts, and the best training can be bypassed if the distraction is exciting enough.

In the past five years I have spoken on numerous occasions to the powers that be at the local Main Street Shaw’s supermarket about their nonexistent policy concerning dogs in their store. Apparently federal and state laws prohibiting animals in establishments that serve food is less of an issue than the fear of being sued by entitled shoppers bringing in non-service dogs. The overly litigious public has more clout than existing laws that protect the likes of me. The whims of the thoughtless seemingly surpass the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

You do not have to dig into large and dusty books in the depths of a formidable law library to find the details of the ADA; the entire legal document defining service dogs can easily be found online (beta.ada.gov/law-and-regs/ada/). A business owner or manager should be required to know the procedures around their own establishment. I follow ADA protocol. The same respect should be mirrored back at me.

In overly simplified terms, a service dog must be trained to perform a specific task or tasks for its handler. The ADA laws do not cover the “certification” by any kind of therapist for any kind of animal to emotionally support someone without being trained to perform specific tasks. Capes without certification are not legal tender to denote service. Anyone can buy a cape online. A service animal can only be a dog (with the one rare exception of a miniature horse).

During a recent visit to the Montpelier Shaw’s, a dog was roaming on a long leash, allowed to growl and bark at my Seeing Eye dog. My daughter wanted to steer me clear of this distraction, her usual protective tendencies in full swing. I love that she looks out for me and that she does it so well and so ferociously. But this time I stood my ground. Why do I have to shuffle aside like a guilty trespasser when I am the one backed by federal law? My dog is in harness and on a short leash. I do not want to have to sidestep around other people’s bad behavior. I have as much right to occupy space in a store as anyone else. The ADA laws have made sure of this.

However, ADA laws are only as effective as they can be enforced. It’s a constant trial, explaining my rights over and over and over again to people who aren’t always concerned enough to comply with or respect disability law.

On the other hand, when a person is interested and really wants to know about the dog, about blindness, about how life works for me and my dog, I am usually happy to engage. Unless, of course, questions and comments are fired at me as I cross the street or am otherwise occupied. It’s complicated navigating my world. Both my dog and I need to focus on staying safe and getting to where we’re going.

Leaving the house these days takes a much longer time as I anticipate dogs leaping at me and my dog at every turn. Do I even want to take the risk that we will meet up with yet another challenging situation? Perhaps the safest path is to strike out toward the roads less traveled.

Do I need to give Shaw’s a miss now to avoid the stress of untrained dogs distracting or injuring us? Or do I continue to maintain my right to shop at any grocery store with my trained and ADA-backed Seeing Eye dog. Maybe I should just shop at the Hunger Mountain Co-op, where they know the rules and do not allow non-service dogs to enter their store, let alone wander at will on a long and unattended leash.

Sarah Potok lives in Montpelier with her Seeing Eye dog, Nora. She is a writer and teaches assistive technology within the blind community.