Service dog aids invisible disability

man at front of classroom, service dog at his feet
Ziggi sits at Billy Wallace's feet while Wallace teaches an introductory criminal justice class in Lake Superior Hall.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
man with service dog at his feet
Billy Wallace and Ziggi sit in the Mary Idema Pew Library.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
service vest close-up
Ziggi's service vest
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

When Billy Wallace projects a louder "teaching voice" in the classroom, Ziggi walks over to him and stands at the ready.

Ziggi is a 2-year-old Labradoodle and trained as a service animal to assist Wallace, who is the director of Grand Valley's Police Academy and teaches criminal justice courses.

After suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for more than 25 years, Wallace, who served in the Army during the Gulf War then as a police officer, sought medical help and took up the suggestion to get a service animal.

"Ziggi helps when my heart rate is elevated and my adrenaline is pumping," Wallace said. "If I get upset, or he thinks I'm getting upset, he comes over."

Wallace worked with a dog trainer in Holland when Ziggi was 11 weeks old, first with obedience training, then task-specific training. He began bringing Ziggi to campus in 2017, first to work during a summer Police Academy session, then to his classes.

"I always give rules to my class: don't touch him, he's a trained service animal. But he still is a dog, and when someone brings something to class that smells good, sometimes Ziggi's nose gets the best of him," he said.

Wallace requested an accommodation to bring a service animal to campus from Disability Support Resources. He said that process was easy, as was getting Ziggi acclimated to campus. What's difficult, Wallace said, is the number of people who approach him and want to pet Ziggi.

"A lot of people think that I'm training the dog for someone else. Then I have to explain our situation, which often leads to discussing my medical condition. Not all disabilities are visible," he said.

He said service animals who are wearing vests should not be distracted in public. "When people talk to or try to pet Ziggi, it takes his attention away from me," Wallace said.

Shontaye Witcher, director of DSR, said while there has not been an increase in use of service animals on campus, the use of emotional support animals has risen and caused confusion.

"We are seeing more dogs without appropriate classification, which hurts individuals with disabilities," Witcher said. "Service dogs perform a task."

Service animals (dogs or sometimes miniature horses) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are trained to perform tasks for the benefit of the person with a disability. Emotional support animals provide comfort to owners and are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which applies to residences.

Witcher said emotional support animals are not allowed in public spaces, including classrooms and facilities, and all animals on campus must be on a leash. She added when inquiring about an animal, it's appropriate to ask two questions: Is this animal a service animal and required because of a disability? and What task is it trained to perform?

Wallace said Ziggi has been a huge help and his mental and physical health have improved. He added Ziggi is able to "clock out" of his work day when Wallace takes Ziggi's service vest off.

"I keep tennis balls in my office and am able to play fetch with him before or after class," he said.