A coordinator for Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America's VetDogs, both based in Smithtown, was honored by the Transportation Security Administration for working to improve airport screening for travelers with service animals, the agency announced last week.
"It was a surprise and an honor," said Jenine Stanley, of Columbus, Ohio, a consumer relations coordinator for the organizations, which provide guide dogs and training, free of charge, to people and veterans with disabilities.
Stanley, who is blind and flies with her guide dog, a golden retriever named Roger, about six times a year, said airport security agents often demand that travelers like her remove the animals' equipment, which includes a collar, a leash and a harness or a vest.
"That's sort of like leaving your toddler naked," said Stanley. "The equipment -- that's the dogs' routine gears. That's what we use to guide them. When you take their gears off, they become giant puppies."
A few times, dogs have run off into terminals after TSA agents removed the equipment, Stanley said.
There are an estimated 10,000 blind or visually impaired people in the United States who rely on guide dogs, according to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an international nonprofit that provides the dogs to people with vision loss and children with autism.
Another group put the estimate of people using service dogs, trained specifically to help those with disabilities that include hearing impairment and post-traumatic stress disorder at 100,000 to 200,000.
Most TSA agents, who rarely encounter air travelers with service animals, don't know how to deal with them, Stanley said.
"Dogs, like human air travelers, should be scanned at security checkpoints," she said. "For the dogs, they do a pat-down. They literally check them from head to tail."
Stanley, who was honored at TSA's 13th Annual Coalition Conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, is one of about half a dozen employees at the Smithtown organizations who have been working to train airport screeners on the proper way to get travelers with service animals through security. The team, which includes Sheila O'Brien and Karen Greis, has provided training to TSA workers at Kennedy Airport in Queens as well as conducted webinar training for airport employees across the country.
"By working together, we can ensure that people who use guide and service dogs have a more pleasant travel experience," said Andrew Rubenstein, marketing director for the Smithtown foundations.