I never dreamed I’d ever have a Service Dog. I never dreamed I’d need a Service Dog. But sometimes life happens, and sometimes you fall off the edge of a really big cliff into an ocean of rough, dark, deep water and you have to learn how to swim again.
In December of 2012 I fell. I had three psych hospitalizations, more medications thrown at me than I can even remember now, countless therapist visits. I hit the point where I couldn’t live alone anymore, so my four dogs and I moved into my agility trainer’s home with her and her family and their six dogs. It was a challenge. It was stressful. But they kept me safe.
But that couldn’t last forever. I needed to figure out how to become self-sufficient again. I needed to figure out how to do all the normal “every day” tasks that people have to complete, even the ones that require going out in public. Out in public is hard. I get panicky. I get lost. I get overwhelmed by the noise and the motion and the colors and my brain gets stuck, which is such a scary and vulnerable place to be.
When I had lost a significant part of my hearing in my left ear the year before, I had started to teach my Border Collie Steve to respond to my alarm clock by insistently poking and licking and pawing me. As the meds piled on and piled on, I needed him not because I couldn’t hear my alarm, but because I couldn’t find the energy to respond to it.
I told my therapist how great he is, and she asked about using him as a Service Dog. I thought… my crazy dog could never function in public as a Service Dog! He’ll be over-the-top and embarrass me! But she asked me if I’d start bringing him to sessions to see if it helped, so I did and it did. I bought him a vest and we ventured out into the real world, cautiously, one small step at a time.
My dog did not falter.
My crazy, screaming flyball dog walks calmly next to the cart in the grocery store, ignoring the food on the shelves, ignoring the people who invade his space, who try to pet him, who babytalk him. He lies down while I unload all my groceries at the cash register. He goes under the table in a restaurant and hangs out there while I eat dinner. And he continues to alert me, interrupt me, help me ground myself when I need him to. And having him with me makes me need him less, because I am more confident knowing that I can trust him to have my back, to keep me safe if I need to be interrupted from going out of my mind.
But being out in public with my clearly vested dog has opened my eyes to how utterly ignorant people are around and about service dogs.
A service dog can be large or small. He can be walking by his owner’s side, leading him, or held in his arms. It all depends on what the dog is being used for. There are dogs who help people with a wide variety of disabilities from balance to hearing to seizures to diabetes to PTSD. Just because a person doesn’t look a certain way, doesn’t mean that their dog is not doing important work. Just because we do not meet your stereotypes does not mean we are fakers. Not all disabilities are visible.
Please do not try to disrupt these dogs while they are working. Do not bark at them, so not try to pet them, do not throw food or toys at them, do not babytalk or make kissy noises at them. Just leave. them. alone. These dogs are very well trained, but they are still just dogs, and their attention wavering at just the wrong time because some dumb person at the mall was barking at him again (why people think this is funny, I will never understand) could end up in disaster for the person depending on him.
Please don’t treat the owner as if she’s not there. There are two members in every service dog team. It’s ok to ask polite questions, but don’t be offended if the handler is not interested in talking or in revealing her personal information or history. General questions are usually ok, but “what do you need a service dog for, you don’t look disabled?” is not an ok question.
Employees may ask two specific questions to verify if the service dog is a “real” one. He may ask whether the dog is a service dog, and he may ask what tasks the dog has been trained to perform. That’s it. He may not ask why the handler needs a service dog, what disability afflicts them.
Employees may ask any dog who is disruptive to leave. This is one that I think employees don’t necessarily know and that they are afraid to use. If the dog truly is a service dog and the dog is being disruptive and is not under the control of the handler, the ADA still gives permission to businesses to ask them to leave. While all service dogs are guaranteed access to any public place under federal law, that federal law does not allow them to abuse the privilege and cause problems.
It’s just a service dog, not a unicorn. Service dog teams may be uncommon in your area, but surely you’re aware that they exist, right? Don’t stare, don’t cause a scene, don’t whip out your cell phone to snap a picture. Just let us go about our business. Just let us fit seamlessly into the flow of people on the street or in the aisle. Respect our privacy and our space the way you would that of any other stranger.
And please, stop trying to pet my dog when I’m not looking. He doesn’t like it.