Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Western Store – Take 2

Most of you are familiar with the recent story about the Western Store and Mr. Robert Bryant, the now infamous anti-Service Dog, Robert Bryant. The gentleman who with his simple statement, “I don’t care about the law, get that ‘damn’ dog out of my store,” found out just how fast the internet can transform words into instant outrage. The gentleman who now knows the power of a little girl with disabilities and her Service Dog, ELLIE. The businessman who now knows there are laws that he MUST follow when it comes to Service Dogs and their partners. The businessman who now teeters between staying in business and going out of business, all for the want of “not knowing” the law. The audacity to be so unkind, so unsympathetic, not to mention his ability to display a new standard in customer service, to a Mother with a child with disabilities and a Service Dog, may set Mr. Bryant apart from the “normal” businessman. I am sure Mr. Bryant will not soon forget his Monday afternoon of March 29th.

After being besieged by the press, both local and national, the public, the internet, and the “law,” Mr. Bryant also learned the definition of compassion and forgiveness as Dr. Susan Ivancevich, her daughter Amanda, and her Service Dog ELLIE, accepted Mr. Bryant’s apology on Friday, April 2nd. Mr. Bryant’s apology was coupled with his promise to follow the laws pertaining to individuals with disabilities and their Service Dogs being allowed into his Western Store.

Life has taught me that apologies and promises are cheap and easily obtained when they are given under duress and potential looming legal action. So as an old adage goes “trust, but verify,” I could not be in Wilmington without visiting the Western Store, along with my sidekick, CHAENEY, a certified Psychiatric Service Dog. I was also accompanied by a paws4vetsTM Client, HM2 Buf Kloppenborg, USN, and his certified Psychiatric Service Dog, SALLY. So in the late morning of Thursday, April 8th, I drove into the parking lot of the Western Store. I was prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.

CHAENEY and I entered the store. There was a sales clerk standing inside the cash register platform area. I walked up to the sales clerk and asked, in a half serious and half joking manner, “Are you going to kick us out of the store?” To which I received, “No, can I help you find anything in particular?” I was relieved and happy. I said again, “Are you sure no one will kick me out of the store?” Once again the lady answered, “No.” Then I told her I had a military member and his Service Dog outside, and they were interested in looking at boots, but before I would let him come into the store I needed to know that they would be welcome. She assured me that they would be welcome and that she would welcome the opportunity to show him their boots. I then went back outside and told Buf that he and SALLY were welcome to come into the store, which they did.

We learned the sales clerk was named Belinda. She was very gracious and helpful. She escorted Buf and SALLY over to the “boot section,” and began to converse with Buf about the Navy and SALLY, while showing Buf many different pairs of boots.

As fifteen minutes passed, and Buf and Belinda were trying on pair after pair of boots, an elderly gentleman entered the retail area of the store through a door in the rear of the area. I recognized him as Mr. Robert Bryant. He explained that he was cutting the grass as I approached him. I introduced myself to him and we exchanged a friendly handshake.

As he approached me, CHAENEY, who had been laying on a rug on the floor, got up and approached Mr. Bryant, in an attempt to greet him (check him out – depending on who prospective you are viewing the situation from). Mr. Bryant rebuked CHAENEY’s approach, so CHAENEY deflected his attention to sniffing a rack of cowboy hats directly beside Mr. Bryant. Mr. Bryant cringed and asked me to not have CHAENEY sniff the hats. I directed CHAENEY to stop and to go back and lay down on the rug, which he did.

I then explained to Mr. Bryant that I was from the organization that trained ELLIE, Amanda’s Service Dog. At this point Mr. Bryant stated that he had no idea that there was a law that required him to let a dog into his store. He continued to say that we would now follow that law and that Service Dog like these dogs, (he pointed to CHAENEY) would be allowed in his store. I thanked Mr. Bryant for that realization on his part.

I then introduced him to Buf (who was on the other side of the rack of boots) and his Service Dog, SALLY. I told Mr. Bryant that Buf was an active-duty Navy Corpsman, with three combat tours in Iraq. Furthermore, that Buf had Complex-PTSD, TBI and Dissociative Amnesia. I related that the only reason Buf was able to come into his store was that SALLY was with him. I told Mr. Bryant about Buf not being able to go out into public before he began working with SALLY, and that--just like Amanda and ELLIE--Buf and SALLY were a team, that could therefore do things together that they would otherwise not be able to do, like shop.

At this point I noticed that Mr. Bryant’s eyes were beginning to “water up.” He spoke in a broken voice stating that he “had nothing but admiration for our servicemen.” He then excused himself and left through the door from which he entered.
Buf and SALLY continued looking for a pair of boots. Much to my joy, they finally found a pair – holy fright – boots costs that much?! Anyway Buf was happy and that’s all that mattered at the moment. As Belinda rang up the sale, Buf and SALLY demoed the “Pay Attention” command. This is where SALLY watches for people to approach Buf from behind him. When a person approaches too closely, (6-8 feet) SALLY will use her nose to nudge Buf’s leg, thus telling him that someone is approaching from behind him. Belinda and a couple of other customers in the store watched in amazement. We all left the store – telling Belinda that we would return the next time we were in Wilmington.

Final Thoughts:

Mr. Bryant is not a “dog” person. His lack of reaction to CHAENEY’s attempt to greet him proves this point – if this point needs to be proven. My suggestion is that every person with a Service Dog in the Wilmington area should pay a visit to the Western Store, thus providing Mr. Bryant with the “desensitization training” he needs to completely understand and appreciate the Service Dog. I will visit him every time I am in Wilmington, and the way our schedule is looking, that could be quite often.

Belinda is perhaps the best aspect of the Western Store. A true professional with a keen sense of customer service and appreciation – Mr. Bryant would do well to consider cutting the grass and letting Belinda run the store.

This situation has been a very important “teachable moment” for the Service Dog community. I wager that there are many more people out there like Mr. Bryant. I don’t need to wager – I know. Within the past three months paws4peopleTM Clients and trainers have experienced first-hand the very uncomfortable and extremely frustrating aftermaths of being challenged by or actually being denied access to public accommodations by persons as ignorant of the Service Dog access laws as Mr. Bryant. These were not small privately owned businesses, which even I can understand Mr. Bryant’s lack of knowledge about these laws. These were huge, publicly traded, international companies, owned by the likes of Wyndham Hotels and Choice Hotels. You would expect that companies of this size would have trained staff who would know the laws. So if large companies are ignorant of the laws, then small companies, without large corporate law staffs, can at least be cut some slack.

Here is where the ignorance becomes extremely harmful –

We spend months working with our Military Clients and their Psychiatric Service Dogs getting them ready to face their Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) symptoms such as agoraphobia, environmentally-induced anxiety or panic attacks, etc. We work hard to build the confidence level between themselves and their dog. This training also includes how to handle treatment such as has been received by employees of Wyndham Hotels, Choice Hotels and yes, even the Western Store. However, no amount of training can prepare a person with agoraphobia, anxiety or panic attacks to handle that type of treatment, especially the arrogant, belligerent, condescending, nasty and mean, delivery of the “get that dog out of here” routine delivered by these people. Or the “you don’t look handicapped – what do you need a ‘Service Dog’ for. The harm which potentially could be inflicted on any person with a Service Dog by someone questioning them or denying them service or access could be catastrophic.

This is why EVERY act of ignorance needs to be taken seriously, and made into a teachable moment.