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The Good Fight

How To Spot A Fake Service Dog

Service dogs helps hundreds of thousands of people live their daily lives, but counterfeits muddy the waters and create chaos. That's why Lon Hodge and his dog Gander are trying to educate people.

Sitting in a local restaurant, the man with the Great Dane laughs as his dog romps from table-to-table in hopes of getting dinner scraps. His fellow diners are not so amused. No one stops the dog because he’s wearing a service vest.

“That Great Dane is a fake,” says Lon Hodge, a Vietnam veteran with a real service dog named Gander. Lon often reads Tweets, news articles, and Facebook updates about people being denied entrance into commercial establishments because they have a service dog with them. He knows this firsthand: he and Gander are frequently turned  away from restaurants, hotels, and stores.

Lon suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and relies on Gander, a Labradoodle, to keep him calm. When Gander hears Lon’s voice start to rise, he licks his hand. “If I don’t respond,” he says, “he gets up and puts his front paws on my chest and looks me in the face. It’s almost as if he’s asking ‘if I’m okay?’”

Lon Hodge and his service dog, Gander.

He and Gander are on a mission. They travel the country teaching business leaders and their employees how to spot a real service dog from a fake. Through his nonprofit, Operation Fetch, they educate veterans and businesses about people with visible and invisible disabilities, like PTSD.

In the past two years, they partnered with Amazing Pet Expos to talk to people in the pet industry about service dogs. Everything from how to get a service dog to training them to caring for them and, of course, detecting fakes are covered.  (Plans are in the works for another expo to be held next May. Details will be posted on their Facebook page.)

Lon works with businesses to educate them and the public about just what a problem fake service dogs are. He’s given talks at the corporate offices of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Vantage Hotels. “These corporations want you to shop in their stores,” he says. But when businesses turn people with real service dogs away because of negative experiences with counterfeits, they often hurt their own business, and the lives of their customers.

“Service dogs help people live their lives more independently,” says Brianne Corbett, vice president of client services and dog operations at Freedom Service Dogs of America. “The handler and service dog are in tune with each other. And while most of us have a special bond with our pets, service dogs are more than pets.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service dogs provide a range of duties–from turning lights on and off, retrieving keys, keeping veterans with PTSD free from stress, and a host of other tasks. The ADA doesn’t call them pets.

“With PTSD, it’s hard to lift your head above your anxiety,” says Lon. “Gander keeps me calm. Like a person in a wheelchair, that person needs his chair to move about. I need Gander for the same reasons. He’s not my pet; he’s my service dog.”

“Like a person in a wheelchair, that person needs his chair to move about. I need Gander for the same reasons. He’s not my pet; he’s my service dog.”

While most pet owners have a tight bond with their pets, it’s different with service dogs. Carol Bryant, a dog blogger and publicist, travels everywhere with her dog Dexter. He doesn’t wear a service vest and she won’t go into places that don’t allow dogs. Plain and simple, she respects the rules and would never take Dexter where he isn’t welcome. That means dining in hotel rooms when she’s on the road in order to spend more time with her dog. If she goes to a meeting and can’t bring her dog, her partner willingly steps in to watch him.

The sign of a true service dog like Gander, Hodge says, is he’s practically invisible.

People with service dogs don’t have that option. They need to be with their service dog all the time, and that’s the true sign of a real service dog. “It’s not a real service dog if you check into a hotel and leave the dog in the hotel room when you have dinner or go out somewhere,” Lon says.

When Lon brings Gander into a restaurant, most people have no idea he’s present. “He’s quiet and usually lies under the table,” he says. “He’s never approached anyone. That’s a sign of a service dog. Still, I can understand why some people don’t know the difference. It’s confusing.”

So, how can this be resolved? According to Lon, there’s a movement circulating to shut down phony registries. Anyone with an active credit card can go online and purchase bogus vests and ID cards stating you have a real service dog. Lon’s not in favor of shutting down these operations because, “where there’s an illegal will,” he says, “there’s a way; people will circumvent the law in an absence of true standards.”

Instead, Lon wants to see a national conference on standards, training, and registry that brings together hotels, restaurants, law enforcement, the ADA, dog trainers, service dog agencies, and people like him with a vested interest in a peaceful coexistence and accommodation.

“Our goal is to try and fix this with the least possible stress for everyone,” he says. “People just aren’t informed. When they listen to me and when they meet Gander, they get it.”

The number of service dogs is not accurately known, since there’s no real registry. Congress did a study in 1990 and found there were 43 million Americans with disabilities and approximately 387,000 service dogs across the U.S.

Lon and Gander speak to companies to educate them about why service dogs are important, and how to spot the fakes.

Roughly 20 veterans commit suicide each day nationally according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Life profoundly changes for the better when veterans with PTSD and brain trauma injuries are paired with a service dog,” says Corbett.

Gander continues to improve Lon’s life. He’s a rescue from a Colorado kill animal shelter who took part in a prison dog training program and received additional training from Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, CO. He’s been with Lon since 2012. Home is in Chicago; yet, they spend more than 50 percent of their time on the road addressing corporations, businesses, Rotary Clubs, veterinary colleges, universities, and bar associations about service dogs.

After listening to Lon and meeting Gander, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Vantage Hotels now welcome service dogs. Unfortunately, not all companies are receptive. After three separate incidences with American Airlines, Lon is now in a court battle with them. “Google American Airlines and veterans with service dogs and a few lawsuits pop up,” he says. “We call ahead and are told everything will be fine,” he says. “And then at check-in, they give us a hard time, asking for certification that doesn’t exist and threatening that Gander can’t fly with me. It triggers my anxiety. Even the Service Dog of the Year was banned from an American Airlines flight. ”

Lon wants people to think of him and Gander as a team. “People need to understand that Gander’s an extension of me,” he says. “I owe him an incredible debt of gratitude.”

“My wife, who’s a Chinese historian, says Gander was a ‘bodhisattva,’ which in Buddhist lore is a character that has reached enlightenment, but has decided to stay on earth to teach compassion and love. My wife says if I get reincarnated, I’ll come back as Gander’s servant because he does so much more for me than I think I can ever do for him.”

Q&As

The Neurologist Poet Who Helps Heal Combat Vets

"Physical and emotional pain defy language, defeat it," says Dawn McGuire. Her work helps vets suffering from brain injury and PTSD fight back.

As veterans have returned from two major post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, neurologist and researcher Dr. Dawn McGuire has cared for them. She has also long studied the types of traumatic injuries, including brain trauma, most commonly associated with combat veterans, and the impact of those chronic conditions on their acclimation back into everyday life.

Dawn McGuire.

In addition to her work as a researcher and physician, McGuire is also an award-winning poet who draws inspiration from her clinical studies and her patients. Her work emerges from a rich if relatively recent tradition of narrative medicine, in which physicians and caretakers learn and practice the inextricable links between caring for the sick or injured, and telling stories about health, illness, and wellness.

In her latest collection, American Dream with Exit Wound, published in early 2017 by independent publisher IF SF in San Francisco, she explores themes of hazardous materials and bodies as battlegrounds for soldiers returning home, and how, for returning vets, every day can continue to be war. “I use my poems as an act of imagination, to help myself cross the gap into their lives, to be of real use,” McGuire says of how she uses writing to further access the emotions necessary to her work as a clinician.

Her previous collection, The Aphasia Café, which was also published by IF SF and won the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Award for poetry, similarly explored issues of self-identity, shame and redemption. Celebrated for her work rendering post-combat healing as poetic verse, McGuire will be reading from American Dream with Exit Wound at the 2017 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April.

She shared more about her work—her caregiving, as well as her writing—with Folks.

How did you come to work with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

I’m a neurologist and researcher. I first started to see vets in my early training at the University of California, San Francisco, at the San Francisco Veterans Administration hospital. After 9/11, I became involved in traumatic brain injury (TBI) research and began to see vets who were referred to my free clinic for complex neurological problems—typically brain injury with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and often addiction. They needed more attention than was possible in the medicine-as-business model. I support myself with research, so I have the blessing of being able to practice medicine without insurer [and other related] constraints.

What do you think those who don’t know veterans personally or aren’t personally impacted by these wars misunderstand about the servicemen and –women returning from battles overseas?

It’s easy to misunderstand silent suffering. Who really lives in their world once they return? Their squads are scattered, and they are expected to assimilate immediately back into a culture for which they have sacrificed more than their bodies.

It’s easy to misunderstand silent suffering. Who really lives in their world once they return?

They also sacrificed, in many instances, the core values and principles they were raised with. They may have committed acts that would be moral atrocities in a civilian context. There is little or no appreciation of the psychic splits that occur because of this, the disintegration of the sense of self. There needs to be, as a given, counseling, training, and ritual—as there was in boot camp to create the warrior mentality. There needs to be a boot camp for their restoration and re-creation, run by healers.  

There’s such a rich tradition of medical professionals and healthcare workers—everyone from Walt Whitman to Atul Gawande—writing about their work, their patients, and their perspectives on health, healing, and wellness. Who has inspired your work, and in what ways?

The cover to McGuire’s latest poetry collection, American Dream With Exit Wound.

I went to medical school at Columbia University, the birthplace of narrative medicine (albeit a decade after I graduated). But of course, the atmosphere that enabled Dr. Rita Charon to found the first program in narrative medicine was already in place when I was there. Personal involvement, and striving to empower compassionate care, were rewarded.

The program at Columbia, founded in 2000, states: “The care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others.”  

The other visionary of narrative medicine is Dr. Rachel Remen, at UCSF, where I trained in neurology after Columbia. So it has been the validation of my practice, against the grain of medicine-as-business, that has inspired and empowered me.

Is there a specific poem in American Dream with Exit Wound that has an especially evocative backstory?

About a third of the collection has to do with vets, addiction, or both. I don’t have any identifying details in my poems to protect patients whose backstories may have gotten me writing. The most powerful, to me, is the title poem, in which the iconic ancient warrior Achilles is a junkie. His hyper vigilant lover is looking for signs that he is using, as any addict’s loved ones tend, painfully, to do.

In your last poetry collection, The Aphasia Café, you wrote about a different sort of symptom set and how that condition manifests in the mind and body. How did writing about war wounds and PTSD differ, but also, how do you see the two as similar?

The Aphasia Café had many poems concerned with the breakdown of language as a symbol system, after stroke, for example. American Dream with Exit Wound deals with another kind of language disruption. Physical and emotional pain defy language, defeat it. The vets I see speak in monotones and monosyllables. Besides medical treatment for their neurological problems, I try to make a space in which their stories, in their multiple dimensions, can be conveyed and, in the best outcome, their sense of agency restored.  It takes time and trust.

It’s in the literature of vets themselves, their own stories, that I believe there is the greatest hope.

What gives you hope when caring for this generation of veterans? In the same vein, how do you view the role of literature in providing hope?

It’s in the literature of vets themselves, their own stories, that I believe there is the greatest hope. Narrative is strong medicine for these complex and marginalized soldiers. It can break into silence, [what I call] their solitary confinement. It can make real connection imaginable again.

Buy a copy of  American Dream With Exit Wound here.

Q&As

Madness, Medication, And Music

Abused as a child, acclaimed concert pianist James Rhodes combats PTSD with Mozart and Bach.

When he was seven years old, James Rhodes heard classical music for the first time: A live recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor, playing from a beat-up Sony cassette machine in his London home. Rhodes, now an acclaimed concert pianist, believes he would’ve met an early death by suicide or drugs had he not heard that funereal Chaconne as a boy. His first encounter with Bach “felt like being freezing cold and climbing into an ultra-warm and hypnotically comfortable duvet with one of those £3,000 NASA-designed mattresses underneath me,” Rhodes writes in Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music. “I had never, ever experienced anything like it before…. Music has, quite literally, saved my life.”

Rhodes’ autobiography frankly discusses the years of trauma that followed his childhood abuse.

Between the ages of five and ten, Rhodes was repeatedly raped by a gym teacher named Peter Lee at his posh London prep school. Bullied into silence by his rapist, Rhodes was thirty when he first spoke of this brutal ongoing trauma—which, by that point, had led to “multiple surgeries, scars (inside and out), tics, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, vigorous self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction, the most fucked-up of sexual hang-ups, sexuality confusion, paranoia, compulsive lying, eating disorders, PTSD, [Dissociative Identity Disorder], and on and on,” Rhodes writes. “Child rape is the Everest of trauma.” Polite euphemisms like “abuse” and “molestation” don’t cut it, he says: “Let’s call this what it is.” After Rhodes went public with his story, police tracked down Lee, who was working in Britain a boxing coach for boys; Lee died of a heart attack before he could stand trial.

Far more than psychiatric medications and stints in mental hospitals, classical music sustained Rhodes through his darkest hours. After transferring to a new school at age ten, he began obsessively studying piano, worshipping composers like Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Schubert, and Ravel. In 2009, he released his first live album, Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos. Defying the stuffy conventions of classical music culture—he proudly wears his tattoos and Chuck Taylors on stage—the largely self-taught pianist has helped make the compositions of dead men in powdered wigs accessible to contemporary audiences.  

Told in frankprose, Instrumental is a harrowing testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the redemptive powers of art. It’s also a call to end the culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse. The suppression of Rhodes’ story continued when his ex-wife took him to court in attempt to prevent the publication of Instrumental, arguing that its discussion of rape and mental illness would psychologically damage their son. In 2015, the U.K.’s Supreme Court overturned the ban on the publication of Rhodes’ memoir; a judge argued, in part, that the book could help survivors of sexual abuse.

We spoke to Rhodes about how to listen to survivors of sexual abuse; how mentally ill artists create in spite of, not because of, their mental illness; and which classical compositions might provide momentary relief from today’s politically-induced anxieties.

 

Your book is about music as salvation. How did music keep you alive?

It showed me that there was something beautiful in the world that, at the time, seemed only hostile and ugly. It provided, continues to provide, proof of something good.

In Instrumental, you write that “Shame is the legacy of all abuse…. I am many things. I am a musician, a man, a father, an asshole, a liar and a fraud. But yes, most of all I am ashamed. And perhaps there is a chance that I am those negative things as a result of being ashamed. That if I can accept, befriend, diffuse that feeling of blame, fault, badness, evil that is inside me, the defects and beliefs that seem to keep the world operating against me will fall away.” How has publicly discussing your abuse shifted your experience of shame, if at all? Has it helped you “accept, befriend, diffuse” feelings of shame?

No. If anything it has increased the feelings of shame because it’s all out there and exposed. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not talk about these things. The more people talk about difficult subjects, the easier it will become for others to talk and the less stigma will be associated with those topics.

[Music] showed me that there was something beautiful in the world that, at the time, seemed only hostile and ugly.

“Composers and mental illness go hand in hand like Catholics and guilt, or America and obesity,” you write; your book offers many examples of genius composers who suffered from various mental illnesses. The contested correlation between creativity and mental illness has long been the subject of much romanticization, research, and debate. In your experience, how has mental illness impacted your creative process (and vice versa)? Do you think you’re an excellent pianist in spite of or, in part, because of your mental illness?

I don’t think I’m an excellent pianist period! But thank you. And I also think we are all quite mad, to a greater or lesser extent. People who create do so despite any mental illness not because of it. They (we) do it because at 4 in the morning when you want to throw yourself out of the window because you’ve had too much to think, you can sit at a piano or a computer or a canvas and find a way through, a distraction, a way to disappear safely.

Your experience at a psychiatric hospital in Britain—which involved being force-fed medications—was like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The laundry list of diagnoses you received within days included “bipolar disorder, acute PTSD, autism, Tourette’s, clinical depression, suicidal ideation, anorexia, DID, borderline personality disorder.” Did any of these diagnoses help you better understand and manage your suffering at the time, and do you find any of these diagnoses helpful now?

No. You can see 10 different psychiatrists and get 10 different diagnoses and multiple different meds. It’s such an inexact science. And we understand so little about the mind. I just accept that I’m not quite ‘right’ in the head and get on with it.

Through his life, James Rhodes has turned to music to help cope with the haunting repercussions of childhood trauma.

The first family friend you told about your abuse responded by saying “Well, James, you were the most beautiful child”—probably one of the least helpful things you could say in that situation. Others have callously suggested that you are “only talking about the abuse that happened as a means of selling albums or getting sympathy.” What are other common wrong ways to respond to stories of sexual abuse? What are some things people have said or done that you have found particularly helpful and healing?

The most helpful things in my experience are belief, empathy, compassion and, most of all, having someone listen. I think perhaps we’ve forgotten how to listen, how to shut up. So often we are speaking to someone and just know they are reloading as we are talking, waiting to spew words at you. Listen, be still and don’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects.

The most helpful things in my experience are belief, empathy, compassion and, most of all, having someone listen.

When a judge ruled to allow you to publish your memoir and communicate publicly about your traumas, he argued that the book could help other victims of abuse. How have rape survivors responded to Instrumental? What are some examples of people who’ve been helped by reading your story?

There’s been an overwhelmingly positive response. Thousands of messages from people who have gone through similar things or those who have loved ones (nieces, nephews, children, exes, etc.) who they now understand a little better. It’s been an astonishing, humbling, amazing response. And reinforces why it’s so important to speak out and also why the UK’s Supreme Court made the right decision in overturning the ban.

What composers are you listening to most so far in 2017?

I’ve listened to a metric ton of Mozart recently. Teodor Currentzis conducting Don Giovanni and Figaro mainly. He’s one of the greatest living musicians in my opinion.

What pieces of music would you prescribe for momentary relief from today’s rampant politically-induced anxiety?

Music isn’t going to fix the Trump disaster, any more than it’ll fix Brexit or mental illness. But it does make things a little bit shinier and it does provide solace and a sense that there is something better in this world than the insanity on display right now. Bach’s keyboard concertos played by Glenn Gould, Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto or any of the pieces on the Instrumental Spotify playlist can only help.