Alum Spotlight

Leader Dogs and the Law

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 1 - 2014 »   
Sonja Wagner (was Davis) in 1959 with LD Penny

Sonja Wagner (was Davis) in 1959 with LD Penny

“Misguided Views On Guide Dogs Plague the Blind,” reads the title of the article from a 1979 copy of the Memphis-Press Scimitar. The focus of the article is Mrs. Helen Hosse, who was learning to adjust to her life without sight with the help of her first Leader Dog, a slim German shepherd named Snoopy. Helen and Snoopy’s biggest hurdle: the public’s lack of awareness about access laws for guide dogs. “My main trouble is with these mall managers, store employees and security people telling me, ‘You just can’t bring your dog in here,’” Helen told the newspaper. “It’s more frustrating than embarrassing. I get the impression they are more ignorant than insensitive.”

Helen wasn’t the only early graduate of Leader Dog to run into misunderstandings about public access. Sonja Wagner has had seven Leader Dogs over the course of her life, and she was paired with her first in 1959, when Sonja was in her early 20s. Sonja had a system for whenever someone questioned her Leader Dog’s right to be with her in a public place. “Before anything else, I’d ask them to check their building code,” she says. “It said in there that guide dogs were allowed. Today, of course, it says ‘service dogs.’ But back then it was just guide dogs.”

Ilene Goldman-Sawyer received her first Leader Dog in 1960, when she was just 17 years old. She recalls an incident that happened not long after she went to university, when she and a friend tried to go to a restaurant across the street from campus. When they entered, the manager stopped them and told Ilene that she and her dog needed to leave. Ilene showed him a copy of the law, and the manager backed down. “After that, he was so nice and he always gave us free food, because he was nervous.”

Ilene Goldman-Sawyer in 1969 with LD Shasta

Ilene Goldman-Sawyer in 1969 with LD Shasta

Not every encounter ended that way. Ilene describes a time that she and her sister went out to eat. “We sat down at a table, and then we waited and waited,” she says. “And they refused to serve us. I stood up for myself and told them it was the law.” As it happened, there was an attorney sitting at the next table, and he backed her up, even threatening to sue the restaurant. In the end, Ilene walked out. “I was so angry. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them anymore.”

Over time, public awareness of service dogs and their right to go almost anywhere with their handlers has improved. There are still people who protest at the sight of a dog in a restaurant, taxi cab or boutique, but now the fans usually outnumber the opponents. Ilene and her current Leader Dog, a German shepherd named Daggs, have no trouble traveling around her hometown. “Everybody loves him!” she exclaims. “I call him my gentle giant.” Sonja reports a similar situation when she is out and about with her latest Leader Dog, a young black Labrador named Lillian. “Everyone loves the dog. They don’t worry about you, it’s all about the dog. You play second fiddle to the dog!”