Since five-year-old assistance dog Gemma became Sam Galea’s constant companion, he has gained the confidence and freedom to venture outside the four walls of his safe haven home.
The German Shepherd has been Sam’s constant companion for the past two years, accompanying him to the shops, on outings, restaurants – just about anywhere.
Gemma is a trained service dog which provides essential support for someone with a health disorder.
Under the Federal Disability Discrimination Act Gemma and Sam are guaranteed access to all public spaces in Australia.
Today, assistance dogs help people with a wide range of challenges, from visual and hearing impairments to epilepsy, autism, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
While Sam’s constant struggles with everyday life has been made much easier since the German Shepherd came into his life, many members of the general public question Sam’s health issues based on a casual glance.
“You look alright or you don’t look blind” are just a sample of the cruel comments Sam has been subjected to.
“And, then they get angry if they cannot pat my dog,” Sam said.
Although many people know not to pat or get the assistance dog’s attention when they are working, few understand the reason.
Simply, an assistance dog’s purpose is to keep its owner safe.
If the dog is distracted and not paying attention to his to job his handler could very easily get hurt.
“I stopped going out because of the rudeness from people,” another Forster handler – who did not want to be identified – said.
Both Sam and the woman said the majority of businesses in Forster-Tuncurry area were more than happy to accommodate the dogs, which wear distinctive identifying jackets.
Some members of the public claim they can get the jackets on Ebay to enable their dogs entry into shopping centres and restaurants.
“They are just nasty,” she said.
”I had a child kick my dog.”
Assistance dogs are tested every 12 months, undergoing a rigorous public assessment test to ensure they remain suitable for the job.
Unlike the traditional ‘seeing eye dog’ Labrador assistance dogs come in all shapes and sizes from the German Shepherd like Gemma to the tiniest Chihuahua and are trained for a variety of medical disorders.
“They are allowed in public areas to help their owners,” the woman said.
For inquiries about the Federal Disability Discrimination Act go to the Human Rights Commission on www.hreoc.gov.au