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Johnson City businesses get service dog training

Jonathan Roberts • Updated May 1, 2019 at 7:41 PM

What rights and responsibilities do business owners have when service dog owners are in their stores?

A group of Johnson City business owners took the opportunity to find out Tuesday from a non-profit that provides veterans with service dogs.

The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce hosted the presentation, from Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, to help foster an understanding of how service dogs should be handled by business owners and employees.

Laurie Brit, a member of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs’ board of directors, told the audience that many business owners don’t know what questions they can ask: “I know they want to be good to their customers and don’t want to ask the wrong things.

“So I think it’s important they know the questions they are allowed to ask and that they don’t have to put up with bad behavior.”

She told the audience that they have the right to ask anyone, even a fully trained service dog, to leave if they’re causing a disturbance.

However, they can only ask people two questions regarding service dogs: is the dog trained to help with a disabilit? And what three tasks does the dog assist with?

Brit gave the presentation to about 15 people, including Elisa Britt and Barbara Mentgen of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s very important (to have these events), because we can get the word out a little bit easier because there’s such a big need in this area,” said Britt, the Chamber’s executive secretary.

Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is based near Knoxville in Loudon, Tennessee; Brit says it’s important to speak with people in other cities and towns to help spread their message and inform local business leaders of their rights and how to handle service dogs in their stores.

“We’re just one small organization, and if I can come and talk to a group of 20 people and they go and tell 20 more, then slowly but surely the word will get out there,” Brit said. “I’ve been doing this for five years now and I’ve noticed an increase in awareness.”

Smoky Mountain Service Dogs provides animals to veterans within 350 miles of their Loudon base at no cost. Brit said approximately 97% of all revenue goes toward training the dogs. The group has four paid dog trainers and is run by a team of more than 140 volunteers, including an all-volunteer board of directors.

They’re also one of 18 service animal organizations in the United States accredited by Assistance Dogs International and the only one in the Southeast. ADI accreditation typically takes about three to five years to acquire.

“It isn’t just a dog, it’s a life-changing companion,” said Chad Chesser, who shared his story after watching one of the Smoky Mountain Service Dogs’ Passing of the Leash graduation ceremonies.

Those dogs go through about two years of training and come from both breeders and rescues alike, though most come from breeders.

After its opening in 2010, the first service dog wasn’t placed in a home until early 2013. Homing a service dog is a process in itself that can take up to six months, Brit said.

“I think our veterans deserve to be treated well and to have a legitimate service dog if they need one,” she said.

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