SIOUX CITY -- Gunny gnaws on tennis balls like a person chewing bubble gum and, sometimes, struggles to control his wagging tail to the detriment of his veteran Adam Menin's electronics.
He's playful like any young pooch and even a bit of a clown, but when Menin, of Sioux City, dresses the 90-pound German shepherd in his service dog gear, Gunny recognizes that it's time to go to work and his demeanor changes.
"It's like a flip of the switch. When his harness is on, he knows he's at work. But the second I take it off, he's a 2-year-old puppy," said Menin, who received Gunny from Partners for Patriots just a couple months ago. The nonprofit, which is based in Anthon, Iowa, obtains, trains and provides service dogs to disabled veterans at no cost to the veterans.
Cindy Brodie, director of Partners for Patriots, said she has trained German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, poodles and mixed breeds, to perform a variety of tasks for veterans. They can retrieve items from a refrigerator, help with laundry, make beds, and more, but Brodie said their main job is being there for their veteran during a panic attack or flashback related to post-traumatic stress disorder. She said yelling and pushing doesn't deter the dogs, who jump up on their veterans and lick their faces to bring them back to reality.
"You can't take a picture of PTSD -- of the anxiety, of the depression. Twenty-two (veterans) a day commit suicide," she said. "We've had spouses tell us, 'You saved his life and our marriage.'"
Madalen Larrabee said her husband, James, didn't talk about serving in the U.S. Marine Corps until Partners for Patriots paired him up with Drogo, a 1-year-old pit bull mix, in August. A counselor, who diagnosed Larrabee with PTSD after he had shoulder surgery last December, recommended that he get a service dog. The PTSD diagnosis came years after Larrabee was deployed to Iraq.
"I get to talk to him about everybody in the world and he won't ever question anything," Larrabee said as Drogo, outfitted in a blue service vest, rested on his side at Larrabee's feet in their living room. "He actually helps a lot with night terrors."
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs or miniature horses that are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, no uniform nationwide certification or registration process exists for them. In fact, service dogs don't even have to receive professional training. A person with a disability can train a dog to perform a task for them.
Brodie said handlers of service dogs aren't required by law to dress their dogs in special vests or carry documentation of the dog's training with them in public places, either.
Pet owners have exploited these legal loopholes by simply outfitting their dogs in service vests or purchasing bogus service animal certifications online in effort to take them into restaurants, shopping malls and movie theaters.
Last May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that makes a person who "intentionally misrepresents an animal as an assistive animal, a service dog or a service-dog-in-training" guilty of a simple misdemeanor, upon conviction.
"The biggest problem is you have people that do not have a trained dog. They're taking untrained dogs out there and they're causing problems," Brodie said. "They're saying they're service dogs, but they're not."
"I belong here"
In the short time that they've been together, Menin, who has PTSD, said Gunny has changed his life.
Menin, a sergeant who served in the U.S. Army, suffered combat-related injuries in Iraq, including multiple traumatic brain injuries.
If Menin is having a nightmare, Gunny snuggles his cheek. If he senses Menin is feeling "antsy," he stands up on his hind legs, presses his paw against Menin's chest and licks Menin's face.
"I've got a lot of brain damage from the war. He helps me a lot if I forget what I'm doing. He'll grab my bracelet and he'll take me somewhere familiar," Menin said as Gunny laid against his right foot. "Everybody says since I've gotten him, I'm a whole nother person."
Brodie said dogs are donated to Partners for Patriots or come from shelters. They undergo testing to ensure they are healthy and have the right temperament to flourish as service dogs. If they meet those requirements, they are accepted into the program to begin training, which generally takes between 4 and 12 months, depending on a veteran's needs. She said a service dog must be people-oriented, good out in public and "bomb-proof."
"They can't be scared of things," she said. "I'll put a tarp over me and walk with a walker. We make a lot of noise and they cannot react to anything."
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When Menin grabs Gunny's leash and harness, which is equipped with a metal support handle and printed with the words "Mobility Assistance Dog. Do Not Pet. Do Not Distract," Gunny instantly knows they're going out. He puts his own head through the harness and Menin straps him in.
If Menin falls when he and Gunny are out and about, Gunny lies down beside him. Then, Menin grabs the harness and utters the command, "Gunny, Up." Gunny uses his muscles to support Menin as he rises to stand.
Menin said about 80 percent of the people they encounter in public want to pet Gunny, which is a big no-no, because he's working. While businesses have been welcoming of Gunny for the most part, Menin's wife, Julie, said some ask if he's "a real service dog" or an emotional support animal (ESA). The Menins carry cards in their wallets that identify Gunny as a service dog.
"He gives me the confidence to say, 'I belong here. I deserve to be here, too,'" said Menin, who isolated himself before Gunny arrived.
Larrabee said the first night he spent with Drogo, he slept all night long, something he said he hadn't done since late 1990. During their second night together, Larrabee woke to the sound of Drogo whining in his crate and discovered that his own chest was wet with sweat.
"It's so much easier for me to get back to sleep because he's right there," said Larrabee, who now sleeps with Drogo in a king-size bed. "He'll let me reach over and put my hand on him or he'll even reach out and put paws on me to let me know that it's OK."
Some of the skepticism about service animals on the part of landlords and business owners likely stems from high profile incidents involving ESAs behaving badly in airports and on airplanes.
An emotional support pot-bellied pig was kicked off an airplane in Connecticut in 2014 for being disruptive. Three years later, an emotional support Labrador-pointer mix attacked a man on a flight from Atlanta to San Diego.
Although health care providers can recommend service animals, a person with a disability doesn't need a doctor's note in order to have one. That isn't the case for ESAs. A domestic animal, such as a dog, cat, rat or ferret, is considered an ESA if a licensed mental health professional has signed a letter prescribing it for a patient.
ESAs don't enjoy the same public access that service animals do. ESAs can be kept out of restaurants, stores and other businesses, but they are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, as well as the Fair Housing Act.
Both service animals and ESAs are allowed to accompany their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft, however, an airline can require documentation stating that the person has a disability and the reason why the animal must travel with them. Landlords are allowed to ask tenants to provide documentation of a disability, but they must waive lease restrictions and pet fees for service animals, as well as ESAs.
"For fair housing, there is not a species requirement, so you could have a cat, you could have a companion snake," said Karen Mackey, executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission. "Someone who has a companion animal, often, they have it because they have an anxiety disorder, they have depression, they have something going on in their life that makes it more difficult just for them to get along on a daily basis."
Reconsidering a ban
If Drogo wasn't a service dog, a Sioux City ordinance wouldn't allow him to reside with Larrabee in city limits.
The controversial pit bull ban, which was unanimously adopted by the Sioux City Council in September 2008, prohibits residents from having dogs that are 51 percent or more pit bull. The ordinance describes a pit bull as an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or any dog that looks like or has characteristics of being one of those breeds.
The city's legal department is recommending that the current council adopt an ordinance to lift the ban because animal control regulations across the country are "turning to breed neutral regulation and moving away from breed specific regulations," according to city documents. The repeal is also recommended to ensure future compliance with ADA and Fair Housing Act regulations for individuals who may have service animals that fall under breed specific regulation.
At an Oct. 21 council meeting, Mayor Pro-Tem Dan Moore said "the threat of litigation" triggered the need to revisit the ban. He said exceptions need to be made for pit bulls that are service and companion animals. Three days later, during a city council candidate forum, Mayor Bob Scott said, "Anybody could probably go get a pit bull today and call it an emotional support dog and we're going to be unable to enforce that."
When Larrabee and Drogo are out in public, Larrabee said people often remark that Drogo is "beautiful" and inquire about his breed. When Larrabee tells them Drogo is a pit bull mix, they usually respond, "He's so well-behaved." Some, who are unaware of Fair Housing and ADA laws, question how Larrabee can have Drogo in the city. Larrabee said he feels sorry for responsible dog owners who would like to have a pit bull, but can't legally because of the ordinance. He wants to see the ban overturned.
"If they do bite, they do more damage, I understand that. But it's not the dog's fault, it's the way they were raised," he said. "They're just misunderstood."