COLUMBUS — Chris Cooley was sitting on his bed, wondering what his life had come to and what his next step might be.
Born with a hearing impairment, school had always been a struggle. And the 17-year-old from Portsmouth was just told he could no longer drive — he was now losing his vision due to optic nerve deterioration.
“I heard kids playing outside, and dogs barking, and I finally said to myself, ‘Don’t give up,’” Cooley said.
Then he asked himself, “How can I push myself out of this room?”
He began volunteering at a juvenile center in Portsmouth, “trying to be a role model for others.”
Although Cooley had “always been terrified of dogs,” he eventually decided to see about getting a guide dog, and he hooked up with Pilot Dogs Inc. in Columbus.
“Pilot Dogs brought dogs in slowly, one-on-one with me. I was shaking inside,” he said. Until one of the dogs came up to him, laid its head in Cooley’s lap and gave him a look as if to say, “If you’re ready, I’m ready.
“He knew I was scared, but when we took that first walk, I realized there was no reason to give up now,” Cooley said.
However, for Cooley – now 38 and living in Columbus – there remained many obstacles.
“There were times I would walk into places and be asked to leave because of my service dog,” he said. About three years ago at a convenience store, Cooley said he was threatened by the manager to leave with his dog or “he was going to hit me.”
“I tried to explain about the guide dog, tried to show him ID,” Cooley said. “Some places just didn’t know or understand.”
So, Cooley simply made it his mission to make sure people do understand.
He started a service dog night out group, encouraging people to come out and bring their service dogs, and hopefully that would help educate more people.
However, even as people did become more aware of service dogs, Cooley still kept running into “situations.” So he decided to take his education campaign a step further – to the Ohio Statehouse.
He contacted his representative at the time, along with his partner Jess and friend Janet. After speaking with more legislators — including about court cases and other instances demonstrating the plight of service dogs and their owners — the idea of Service Dog Awareness Week came about.
House Bill 121, sponsored by state representatives Margaret Ann Ruhl and Michael Stinziano and signed into law in January, designates the last week of July as “Service Dog Awareness Week.”
And just a weekend ago Cooley and friends spearheaded a weekend walk in Columbus to further raise awareness. The event included many locals as well as trainers from Guiding Eyes in New York, Pilot Dog trainers and volunteers from Four Paws in Dayton.
Federal and state laws have been enacted to “offer protections for the use of service animals in various situations, including places of public accommodation, employment, housing, education, transportation and air travel, and state and local governments,” according to www.DisabilityRightsOhio.org.
Cooley will keep doing what he can to educate the public about those rights — with help from his five-year-old golden retriever service dog, Conrad.
For instance, he pointed out that most people believe that animals can’t be around food in a public establishment, but the law says “if the public can be around food, so can service dogs.”
“Go out and don’t be afraid of your community,” Cooley advises people with service dogs. “It’s more of a culture thing, we have to break that barrier.
“And let people know the law,” Cooley said.
For more information, check out Christopher Cooley’s Guide/Dog/Service Dog Night Out Group on Facebook.
Reach Tom Barr at 937-382-2574 or on Twitter @ThomasBarr.
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