|His current task: elevating Sophie’s status from happy-go-lucky family dog to focused service dog for Brandon.
“A service dog is trained to assist a disabled person and make their life as normal as possible,” Kutsukos says. For the past several months, Kutsukos has been working a few days a week with the Martels in honing Sophie’s service dog skills.
“Sophie is a very sweet dog who loves to be with Brandon,” Kutsukos says. “It has turned out to be a great match. The medical field can’t figure out what is wrong with Brandon, but we’ve made a lot of progress. When we first started, Brandon was too afraid to walk further than one house from his own; and now with Sophie by his side, he is walking down the block and going to shopping malls and restaurants. Sophie is a smart dog who wants to learn, wants to help Brandon.”
Kutsukos is optimistic that Sophie should meet all the requirements to become a certified service dog within a couple more months if they continue the three-times-a-week customized training sessions with Brandon.
“I’ve trained dozens of service dogs for people as young as 5 and as old as 88 and for each one, we tailored the dog’s training skills to meet the needs of the person with a disability,” says Kutsukos. “I’ve trained all kinds of dogs from German shepherds to toy poodles to mutts. If the dog’s personality is good and the dog is willing to learn, the breed means nothing. And Sophie definitely has the temperament and ability to become a great service dog for Brandon.”
And after watching the transformation of Sophie, Cindy Martel says, “At first, I had my doubts. I did not think Sophie could be trained to be a service dog. Why, she used to jump up playfully to greet guests in our homes. Sophie is so comforting to Brandon and she listens and obeys so well. She amazes me with how well she is in tune with Brandon.”
Posted on Sun, Apr. 10, 2011
By Wayne K. Roustan
MARK RANDALL / Sun Sentinel
The real deal: Nick Kutsukos walks with his service dog, Jack, who is able to alert him before he is stricken with a seizure. Kutsukos trains service dogs through his company. He says some people are getting phony service dog vests and cards on the internet so they can take the dogs where most dogs are forbidden, such as restaurants, stores and airplanes.
Owners and trainers of service dogs are increasingly angry at pet owners who pass their animals off as service dogs by using phony credentials.
The imposters go to the Internet to buy vests, ID cards and certificates for their dogs. The deception allows their pets to live in restricted housing, accompany them into restaurants and hotels or fly free in airplane cabins rather than in cargo holds.
“I don’t want to say it’s a scam, but it is a scam,” said Nick Kutsukos, 72, who runs the Elite K9 Academy in Jupiter and has trained service dogs for 40 years.
People who fake a disability and/or pretend their pet is a service animal risk at least a fine or, in extreme cases, federal fraud charges.
Getting certification is as easy as filling out a form online, sending in your money and perhaps a photograph of your dog.
You can pay from $20 to $300. An owner gets a specially marked dog vest or collar, dog identification tags or ID cards, a certificate, training DVDs, information CDs and other official-looking items.
But none of it is required by law.
One website recommends annual certification, while another offers increasingly expensive bronze, silver, gold and platinum packages.
“There is no certification required, so there’s no such thing as a legitimate [document],” said Toni Eames, president of the Michigan-based International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, who also is blind and has her own guide dog.
Given the time and money invested in training service dogs, disabled users and trainers are angered by those who buy or sell worthless service-dog items online for imposter pets.
“I’m condemning the people who are irresponsible and force people into cheating,” Eames said.
Kutsukos, whose service dog helps with his seizures, said the fake certifications “make it difficult for people with legitimate service dogs to do things.”
A restaurant manager, for example, might think twice about allowing a legitimate service dog inside because of a bad experience with a fake service dog that barked or misbehaved.
The best way to tell whether a service dog is legitimate is to observe its behavior, authorities say. Service dogs won’t appear restless, and they won’t jump or bark. They will obey the disabled owner’s commands, perform tasks and lie down passively where instructed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, protects the rights of disabled people, including their use of service animals. But there was confusion when monkeys, cats, ferrets and other critters were utilized to help people with special needs function in public places such as restaurants and hotels.
The U.S. Department of Justice last month amended guidelines to narrow the definition of service animals to dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks related to the owner’s proven disability.
Guide dogs are the most recognizable of service animals, having assisted the blind and visually impaired for more than 50 years, according to Jose Lopez of Lighthouse of Broward, which serves the sight-impaired. He has had a guide dog for five years, and is a consultant for guide-dog training schools.
“It’s a heavy gray area,” Lopez said. “Basically, everybody can print [certifications] from the Internet and say, ‘That’s my assisting dog.’ ”
Legitimate service dogs, of almost any size and breed, can be taught tasks that include alerting a deaf person to sirens or alarms, retrieving medication, warning of impending seizures and stopping autistic children from wandering away.
The dogs can be trained to wake up a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who is having a nightmare and help prevent or interrupt destructive or impulsive behavior by someone with a neurological or psychiatric disability, Kutsukos said.
Under the new federal rules, dogs that provide emotional comfort are not considered service animals, yet dogs, monkeys, ferrets and other support animals still are allowed in airplane cabins under the Air Carrier Access Act, and in homes under the Fair Housing Act, Eames said, with appropriate proof from the owner’s doctor.
Still, not everyone bothers with the formalities.
“People come up to me all the time and ask, ‘Where do I get one of those harnesses to take my dog with me?’ ” Eames said. “They don’t have any clue [my dog] had two years of training before I was able to take her on a plane with me.”
There are about 20,000 legitimate service dogs in the U.S. and as many as 2,000 in Florida, says Ken Lyons, director of Orlando-based Service Dogs of Florida.
Training takes up to two years at most training schools, and only about 2,500 dogs graduate each year. There is usually a three-year waiting list for legitimate service dogs.
Training guide dogs for the blind can cost up to $40,000, Lyons said. For most service dogs, it is up to $20,000.
“If you are truly disabled, then it’s worth the money,” Kutsukos said.
Although not mandatory, any certification, ID card, vest, tag or harness should have contact information for the service dog’s school and trainer, Lopez said.
By law, a disabled person can be asked only two questions about his or her service dog: “Is this a service dog for disabilities?” and “What tasks or assistance does the dog provide you with?”
In Florida, barring a disabled person and his or her service dog from a restaurant, hotel, airplane or other public place is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
On the federal level, a judge can order a change in business policies to allow access by disabled customers and their service dogs. Fines there are rare.
“If you portray yourself as disabled, or your pet as a service animal, the minute you go out in public you’re committing a crime,” Lyonssaid. “It’s felony fraud.”
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