Woman uses service dog for medical conditions


When Mary Hurt goes to the grocery store, she often gets questioning or disapproving looks from employees and other shoppers.

It’s not because the Seymour resident is doing anything wrong or because she uses a wheelchair. The reason is her companion, she said.

Wherever Hurt goes, so does her 3-year-old dog, Miki Rooney. The small, Yorkshire terrier is not just a pet and best friend to Hurt, he is a service dog that helps Hurt deal with her health conditions.

But most people don’t realize service dogs aren’t just for the blind.

Hurt said she suffers from severe anxiety and had trouble leaving her own home before she got Miki. She has multiple health conditions and uses a motorized wheelchair or a walker to keep from falling.

“Just because a disability is not visible does not mean it is not there,” Hurt said.

She hopes by sharing her and Miki’s story, the public might gain a better understanding and acceptance of people who rely on having a service dog in public settings.

Hurt got Miki when he was just three months old.

“He was just going to be a pet for me at that point,” she said. “Later on, my doctor noticed that we needed him to be an emotional support dog. So she wrote out a qualified letter. I’ve only been asked one time by someone in a doctor’s office to see that letter.”

As an emotional support dog, it was Miki’s job to make Hurt feel comfortable in her surroundings.

“It’s like mom taking you to kindergarten for the first time,” she said of an emotional support dog. “You’re scared and need reassurance.”

For Hurt, the comfort she received from Miki was needed whenever she was in a crowd.

“My blood pressure would go up,” she said. “It makes you want to cry. It’s really rough.”

Then about eight months later, her illnesses got worse, and Hurt progressed to needing a service dog.

Hurt said people shouldn’t assume because of his small size Miki is just a pet and she is breaking the rules by taking him into places such as grocery stores, restaurants and doctor’s offices.

“I just want people to know that Miki is there for me and he is working,” Hurt said. “He is not just with me for fun or because I don’t want to leave him at home.”

She took it upon herself to become educated on service animals by researching and asking questions so she knew what was and wasn’t required of her and Miki.

“I look up everything,” she said. “I educate myself on my illnesses, about what’s going to happen. I want to know.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, the size or breed of a service dog doesn’t matter. They must be permitted to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go including state and local government buildings and public and commercial facilities.

Service dogs do need to be trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind or alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take their medications or calming a person during an anxiety attack.

It doesn’t matter who does the training or where it takes place, Hurt said.

“You can get a service dog through agencies, and they train them, but it costs $15,000 and they’re gone for two years,” Hurt said. “That obviously wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t have him gone for two years.”

She works with Miki on her own at home but also has a trainer, Elizabeth “Izzy” Smith from K9 Campers in Seymour, that comes to her house once or twice a month.

Smith said she has been able to help Mary and Miki with their communication with each other.

“There needs to be clear communication between the dog and handler in order for the training to be as successful as possible,” Smith said. “Mary is really the one training Miki, where as I am training Mary how to train Miki.”

Having helped Mary teach Miki how to alert to her phone, they are currently working on getting him more confident around her walker.

“We are teaching him that next to the walker is the money spot,” Smith said. “That’s where he gets the treats and praise. So far, he has excelled in this and is starting to walk closer to Mary and the walker.”

One of the biggest problems Hurt faces with Miki is people wanting to give him attention when they are out in public. Because he is a service dog and needs to keep his attention focused on Mary at all time, people should refrain from petting or talking to Miki, Hurt said.

“When I am out with him, please talk to me and not Miki,” she said. “If you ask to pet him, please do not be offended if I say no. When we are out shopping, at the doctor, hospital or out to eat, he is working.”

Smith said Miki is still learning to ignore the people around him in order to focus on his main task, which is helping Mary.

“It is imperative that a service dog remains neutral and uncaring around strangers so that they can focus on their job and not get distracted,” Smith said. “Miki does a decent job at this, but we need to get that decent job to an excellent job.

“In the future, I hope to help them add a few more tasks, such as retrieving important objects, like the phone, for Miki to complete for Mary,” Smith added. “Miki is a smart little guy, and Mary is very dedicated to Miki’s training, so I have no doubt we will get there.”

ADA regulations do not require a service dog to wear a special vest or ID to designate them as service dogs. They also do not have to be registered or certified with the city they live in or any other organization in order to be a legal service dog.

Mary said she purchased a vest for Miki, but not because she had to.

“It just works well for us,” she said. “Miki rides on my lap in the wheelchair when we are out.” The vest attaches to her wheelchair through a leash keeping Miki safe and secure.

But there are many websites that try to take advantage of people with service animals by trying to sell them things they don’t actually need, Hurt added.

“You can Google service dog and you will get a world of sites that will sell vests, registration, a letter stating why you need the dog, 50 or more cards to pass out to those asking why you need the dog and an ID card for you and your service dog. All of these are scams, and they are after your money,” she said.

According to ADA requirements on service animals, there are only two questions Hurt has to answer if someone questions Miki’s presence. First being, “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and second, “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Hurt does not have to answer questions about her disability, provide medical documentation or show a special identification card or training documentation for Miki or have Miki demonstrate his ability to perform a task.

When Miki is not “working,” Mary said he likes to go to church with her and socialize. At church, he is an approachable and pettable dog, Hurt said, but she still doens’t want anyone to pick him up and hold him.

“At church, Miki is petted and talked to,” she said. “He is on my lap and may nap at times during the service. He either goes to sleep or is praying, I’m not sure which.”

But wherever Miki is, including at home, he is always close by Hurt and watching her. That doesn’t mean he is always working though.

“Miki has toys, and we play with him,” Hurt said. “He needs down time too, just like we do.”

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