Sometimes when he’s out and about in Lake County, resident Bill Austin is spotted talking with people while his canine counterpart stands at attention, watching each person passing by.
That counterpart is 6-year-old JP, a salt-and-pepper-coated Great Dane, who happens to be Bill’s service dog.
Bill’s wife, Janet, explained the couple became involved with a now-defunct nonprofit dealing with service dogs after she shared articles on the animals on a Facebook page for which she is an administrator called (PTSD) The Truth In Numbers.
The director of the nonprofit reached out to the couple.
“We worked for her for two or three years,” Janet said, noting that is how the Austins “got started” in the service dog industry.
Bill completed two tours in Bosnia in the late 1990s, Kosovo in 2000, Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and lastly, Afghanistan in 2009.
Janet said that during the last tour Bill experienced his injury — to the brain.
Bill said that he was entering a building and heard a blast, then he remembers ceiling tiles and other debris falling from the roof.
The kinetic energy from the blast rattled his brain, he explained, which meant his brain was shaken against his skull.
Bill worked with JP when the pup was three months old, and the bond, Janet said, was “undeniable.”
Janet explained that she does paperwork and helps people understand guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act while Bill works with veterans.
“He has a better understanding of what’s going through their brain,” Janet said, adding she tests the dogs and helps handlers make sure their homes are properly equipped.
Bill said that he looks at a person’s needs and then tries pairing that person with a dog, that can best fulfill those needs.
Any dog breed, the Austins said, can be a service dog.
Then, the couple said they work on Public Access Courses, or PAT, which are “manners for dogs.”
Task training, Bill said, is “ongoing” because neither a handler nor dog can anticipate what type of issues or circumstances will arise each day.
All training has a purpose, which starts with people looking up the ADA guidelines, Janet said.
Handlers should know what a service dog is by definition, knowing where it can and cannot go, she added.
Part of the training, Bill said, includes veterans focusing on the dog, spending time laying on the floor and petting the dog, so the animal learns how its handler reacts when calm versus when they are stressed.
JP, for example, knows to stand next to Bill in public, acting as a wall when people come up close to them.
When people unknowingly try to pet JP, he softly sniffs and ducks away, knowing he is supposed to watch his surroundings to protect Bill.
Undivided attention is not the only thing JP provides his handler.
Each night, JP lays on the floor on Bill’s side of the bed, and if Bill begins to have “bad flashbacks,” JP will start to lick Bill’s face, waking him up before the flashbacks “become full-blown.”
JP also helps Bill with his mobility and reminds Bill to take any medication.
Starting out, simple commands are instructed, such as “sit” and “stay.”
Then, Bill said, special tasks specific to that veteran handler are taught.
The couple said that service dogs should not be petted, because the animal needs to give its handler undivided attention.
Over the last several months, the Austins have travelled the country.
In the last couple of weeks since being home in Montana, Bill said he’s been taking it easy, letting JP rest and take time off when possible.
“Being a handler... It’s a give and take relationship,” he said.
There are differences between therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and service dogs, Janet said.
Therapy dogs make people feel better, while emotional support dogs give comfort and companionship to handlers.
Service dogs, like JP, perform tasks.
Service dogs are not allowed in sterile environments or near food preparation, and are always well-behaved, Janet said.
The ADA only recognizes dogs for service animals.
The Austins said that the ADA does not make service dog handlers complete certification, and if anyone sees an advertisement or deal asking for money to certify their dog, then it is a scam.
Together, the couple said that the bottom line is training, which can be performed a number of different ways depending on the trainer or nonprofit, will follow ADA guidelines.
For guidelines set by the ADA for service animals, visit https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm