Printed on: April 30, 2013

Veteran wants to spread word on service dogs

Idaho Statesman

BOISE -- Daniel Sperry enlisted in the Army the year he graduated from high school. His service in the Persian Gulf wars -- Desert Shield and Desert Storm -- left him with joint pain and headaches so sudden and severe they sometimes make him black out.

"It's the worst pain you can ever imagine," he said.

He's gotten good at sensing when a headache is about to hit.

"I've trained myself to fall down straight, not on my head," said Sperry, who stands 6 feet 4.

Having the support of his service dog on his left side and his cane on his right gives him an extra moment to plan his falls, he said.

If Sperry falls when he's alone, Awescar (pronounced Oscar) goes to get Dan's wife, Angie, for help.

Awescar, a large, white labradoodle, is trained to stand stock still so that Dan can use him as a brace to stand up again.

Sperry's condition means he can't work, but getting Awescar three years ago -- thanks to the Warriors Promise Foundation and a donation from the community fund at Idaho Power where Angie works -- has helped him be out in the world again, he said.

"Before getting Awescar, I was becoming a recluse," Dan said.

Despite the bright blue vest with white lettering that identifies Awescar as more than a pet, and despite state and federal laws that allow the presence of the service dog in stores, restaurants and other businesses, the Sperrys have faced hassles from local shop owners who don't know the law.

They've had some bad encounters in the past few months.

One was in a deli in February when the manager asked them to leave after insisting Awescar was a pet. They stepped out onto the sidewalk and Angie called the police to make a report. Officers arrived. The whole thing was so stressful, Dan collapsed. He ended up in the hospital.

After looking up the law, police returned and ticketed the deli with a misdemeanor.

The owner of a gun store asked Dan to leave when he saw Awescar, even as Dan tried to explain the law.

The Sperrys had a similar encounter at a buffet restaurant. The servers said they were afraid of the dog and that other customers might be allergic to Awescar. They asked the Sperrys to leave, but eventually agreed to seat them -- in a corner far from the other diners. They asked to see documents for Awescar, which is illegal. The Sperrys left without finishing their meal.

"I had never had the experience of being discriminated against, but now I know what it's like," Angie said.

She went home that night and printed out a new business card for herself: "Angie Sperry, disabled veteran advocate."

She set up a meeting the next day with the restaurant manger to explain the legal rights of veterans with service animals.

The Sperrys have joined with other veterans and the Idaho Veterans Network to get the word out.

Marnie Bernard, a member of the network and a longtime veterans advocate, expects the issue to grow.

"There are more veterans returning now, getting service animals. There will be more of these encounters as veterans are out in public more," she said.

Discrimination against service animals is widespread, said Tim Livingood, CEO of the National Service Animal Registry in Colorado. "We actually hear from disabled people routinely with these issues, many vets and nonvets alike," he said.

In addition to educating people about the law, groups such as Livingood's, the Idaho Veterans Network and families such as the Sperrys also want to broaden the public's notion of what a service dog looks like.

Most people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs or muscular labradors pulling wheelchairs. They're not as familiar with a big, fluffy dog like Awescar.

Livingood can relate. His own service animal is a 10-pound toy fox terrier seizure-alert dog.

"People look at him, and at me. I look completely healthy. They think I'm pulling their leg when I say my dog is a service animal," Livingood said.

He gets frequent calls from veterans who are angry after being turned away from businesses. They ask for advice.

"I've had to educate so many people in my own town," he said.

He carries cards printed with the laws regarding service animals. He gives the cards to business owners when he has a problem.

"Once people with disabilities learn to do this, it doesn't mean they won't have confrontations. But it does mean they'll get through them," said Livingood.

The Sperrys say they'll continue to speak out.

"It's 1 percent about me and 99 percent about making sure this doesn't happen to the next veteran," Dan Sperry said. "People don't learn the law, and we're the ones who get affected."

Extra insight

April 23: "Idaho regulations for service dogs are ambiguous"