Saturday, July 28, 2001

Jeanne Torres and her daughter Aza, 5, hugged Torres'
guide dog, Argy, on Wednesday. Torres said the gentle
Argy was attacked by another dog in the same apartment
complex. A group is pushing for a law to protect service
dogs from such attacks.

protection urged

A group is pushing the state to
outlaw attacks on service dogs
by loose aggressive dogs

By Leila Fujimori

Jeanne Torres' yellow Labrador retriever, Argy, is her eyes.

So when a neighbor's pit bull attacked the guide dog in April while Torres and Argy walked down a corridor in her Salt Lake apartment building, she was "petrified."

"I didn't see what was coming. I didn't know what it was or who it was. I just froze and I screamed," said Torres, 41, who can distinguish only some light.

Her husband, walking a couple of feet ahead, kicked the pit bull off Argy. The pit bull got up and went for another bite, Torres said. Just then, the owners came out and pulled their dog off, Torres said. Argy suffered cuts on his ear.

The attack is but one of a handful of cases in which guide, signal and service dogs in Hawaii have been attacked by loose, aggressive dogs. Guide dogs aid blind or sight-impaired people, signal dogs help the hearing impaired, and service dogs help people who are in wheelchairs or epileptic.

These dogs are not trained to protect against attacking animals. The cost of replacing a dog can run anywhere from $20,000 to more than $60,000.

The board of directors of Eye of the Pacific Guide Dogs and Mobility Services Inc. began to push for a state law this week that would make it unlawful to permit a dog to injure or kill any guide, signal or service dog, following the lead of 16 other states.

"If your dog bites the eye of a Seeing Eye dog, he has bitten the eye of the blind person because the dog is in fact the person's eye," said Ronald Bohol, an Eye of the Pacific board member.

Bohol said the group will use a California law to draft a Hawaii bill. The penalties would be more than California's $5,000 maximum fine and one year's jail time for the attacking dog's owner.

The group wants a $10,000 fine for intentional attack and "serious jail time," Bohol said.

The agency, funded by Aloha United Way, purchases dogs for the blind for about $20,000 each. The dogs are placed with the disabled person for free.

Torres said unless the public understands the importance of the guide dog, it cannot understand the extent of the bill.

On a recent trip to the shopping center, Torres, who lost her vision to retinitis pigmentosa, decided to walk the four blocks home rather than wait for the bus, but realized she did not know her way home.

"'Buddy, just take me home,'" she said she told him. "And sure enough, he took me home. No glitches. I just followed him."

To Virgil Stinnett, 31, a guide dog means freedom. "When I first picked up the harness and went for a walk with him, it was like a young child riding a bicycle for the first time after taking off the training wheels and being able to soar and feel free," said Stinnett, who is blind.

Stinnett, whose guide dog, Brandon, narrowly escaped injury from two pit bulls near Kapiolani Park last year, proposed the legislation.

"Police could not do anything," he said. "There's nothing out there to protect service animals." The Humane Society picked up the dogs, and their owner was slapped with a $20 fine, he said.

Brandon's life was spared because Stinnett happened to be accompanied by a trainer from the California facility where he got his dog, which cost $62,000. The trainer whisked the dog to safety into a parked bus.

Dogs off leash can also endanger handlers with guide, signal and service dogs by distracting them, taking them off the job, handlers say. If a blind person is walking across the street and a loose dog distracts it, it can pose a danger to the individual.

Vicki Cozloff, the executive secretary of Eye of the Pacific, said the law would make a difference. "It might open up some people's eyes to control their animals," she said.

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