By Sylvia Shipman, Assistant Features Editor — Robert Cole Hammons is a student with a very special medication, his dog.
He and his service dog, Brutus, are the subject of lots of stares and whispers as they walk through campus.
Hammons is a war veteran who stopped serving in 2012 and got Brutus the following year. Hammons came to UTC to major in sports and outdoor recreation management.
He describes Brutus as “a prescription” for his anxiety following his time serving overseas. Hammons has owned Brutus since the dog was six months old and had him specially trained as a service dog.
“I got my prescription for him in August, and I went above and beyond that fall and got his Canine Good Citizen Training and his Master Therapy Dog Certification,” said Hammons. “We went through every training and testing course we could.”
The five-year-old pit bull is extremely in tune to Hammons’s heart rate and emotions, physically leading him away from situations that make him anxious and waking him up before his unconscious starts having a nightmare. Brutus even fetches objects for Hammons and won’t leave the house until he takes his medication.
“We’re connected,” Hammons said. “He can sense the energy difference.”
Even though he looks like he’s taking a break as he lies at Hammons’s feet, Brutus is technically always working whether his service vest is on or off.
Brutus is perfectly trained to ignore all distractions, whether it is a squirrel, a child or another dog.
Hammons chose a pit bull to be his service dog for a reason; they are extremely trainable and eager to please. Through Brutus’s good behavior and temperament, Hammons hopes to break the stigma that pit bulls are dangerous and aggressive.
“All [pit bulls] care about is accomplishing a task,” he said. “Whatever task you give them, that’s the thing they’re gonna do, be it fetch a ball, be it fight another dog, be it go fetch the medicine.
Their stature and intelligence is unfortunately what makes them good fighting dogs.
“They’re loyal and trainable to a fault and some people exploit that,” Hammons added. “Pit bulls didn’t always have a reputation for violence.”
Hammons mentions that pit bulls were nanny dogs for President Theodore Roosevelt back when families had dogs watch the children play in the yard.
“The first dog in the service that was awarded medals was a Staffordshire terrier in World War II,” Hammons listed. “‘The Little Rascals’ had a pit bull in it.”
Brutus often gets discriminated against based on the bad reputation his breed has gotten over the years.
A woman once questioned Brutus’s authenticity as a service dog specifically because he was a pit bull.
Hammons also adds that various people on campus make comments about how his dog is dangerous and shouldn’t be around so many people.
“I have no patience for it,” Hammons said.
Another issue that Brutus faces is the bad reputation that other people give service dogs when they masquerade their pet as one.
“People will slap a service dog vest they got on Amazon on their dog and start taking it everywhere,” said Hammons. “That’s why I catch flack when people ask if he actually is certified or if he just wears the vest.”
Hammons’s insurance is higher since he owns a pit bull, but discrimination against Brutus can only go so far since he is protected under the Veterans With Disabilities Act.
Despite having four paws and floppy ears, Brutus has all the same rights as a human does; he even gets his own seat on airplanes.
“If anyone was to do anything negative towards him, it would be considered a hate crime against a disabled person in addition to being a hate crime in general,” Hammons said.
Brutus does his best to be a positive example for both pit bulls and service dogs.
While seeing a dog on campus is exciting, Hammons advises students to act like Brutus is not there. He relates Brutus to other objects that help the disabled like a wheelchair or crutches.
“Imagine you are in a wheelchair and you’ve been in a wheelchair for a couple years now. However, someone comes up and starts talking to your wheel chair instead of you,” Hammons said. “[Brutus is] like my wheelchair or my crutches. He’s my medicine.”
Distracting a service dog can be extremely harmful to the owner. For example, if the service dog is trained to sniff out blood sugar or to prevent seizures, they have something very specific to watch out for.
If the dog has been given food on duty in the past, they may start sniffing around for treats regularly and miss that small change they are supposed to be watching out for.
Brutus is disciplined enough to always be checking back on Hammons even when he’s interacting with another person. However, Hammons doesn’t deny having a preference when it comes to whom he lets play with Brutus.
“If someone comes up and ignores me and is just interested in Brutus then I normally tell them that he’s working, but if they acknowledge me and treat me as a person then I let them pet him,” Hammons laughed. “Sometimes I just become the guy who holds [Brutus’s] leash.”
Hammons wants everyone to know that there’s no need to be alarmed by his and Brutus’s presence, and everyone can get along peacefully.
The only thing Hammons warns students about is Brutus’s tendency to snore loudly when he dozes off in class.