This post is in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) and the spring issue of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC).
Every year on May 1, bloggers from around the world post about some aspect of disability oppression. This is what’s known as a blogswarm. Check out the huge number of excellent posts — entertaining, emotional, or educational — at this year’s BADD!
The topic for this quarter’s ADBC is, “How has a working dog in your life affected other people and/or the relationships in your life?”
Lately, I’ve been forced into the realization that, in many ways, raising, training, and handling my own service dogs (SDs) has a negative effect on my IRL (in real life) human relationships, and likewise, my human relationships make raising, training, and handling my SDs much harder. I have many rich, rewarding relationships with other assistance dog partners and trainers online, but when it comes to people I see in the flesh or talk to on the phone, I have no SD partner friends. Ironically, the biggest challenge comes not from those who dislike or are indifferent to dogs. No, the biggest challenge comes from those in my life who are fond of or have some sort of relationship with my dog(s) or who feel a connection to the SD world.
Here are some of the common problems, many of which overlap with each other:
- Some perceive me as an extension of my service dog. They often prioritize their interactions with the dog over their interactions with me. They may or may not have any problem with me, but still may only want to be around me to interact with my dog.
- Some see my SD as just a dog, a pet, and are either unwilling or unable to see that my SD’s role in my life is much more complex, and requires much more upkeep and care, than that of a pet dog. They want to do what they want to do with the dog because it’s fun, and it makes them feel good. The effect that their behavior has on me and my working dog is either unclear to them or less important to them than the pleasure they derive from doing what they enjoy with my SD.
- Some misinterpret behavior that I allow or encourage with my own SD as giving them special privileges to interact with other people’s SDs in similar ways. They don’t seem to understand the difference in acceptable behavior with a dog who is at home, not working, and with whom they are interacting as a house guest, with acceptable behavior with a stranger’s dog or even my dog when he is working or training.
- Some have their own relationship to my SD and feel hurt or angry if I put restrictions on their interactions because of choices I make for the good of my working partnership or training. They may or may not intellectually understand or agree with the behaviors I am requesting or enforcing, but they still find them emotionally difficult. They may also think I’m being “mean” (or capricious, or dictatorial) to the dog or to them by disallowing behavior that disrupts my dog’s manners, obedience, or ability to work but which they find pleasurable (or which they believe the dog enjoys).
Here are some recent examples of how these situations have played out. I have altered some details to preserve anonymity.
1. “I saw a service dog and thought of you.” The story I relate below has happened with other people, in similar circumstances, over the last 13 years.
A recent acquaintance who met Barnum, my service dog, at my house a couple of times mentioned in a phone call that she met a miniature poodle SD while at the grocery store. She then said, “I bent down — because I wasn’t allowed to pick her up — and she gave me many kisses. I thought of you and Barnum.”
I didn’t know the particulars of the situation, so I didn’t know the service dog handler’s policies, comfort level in asserting her needs, the dog’s job, or my acquaintance’s relationship to the handler, but hearing her say this, I felt very uncomfortable. It is a universal experience for assistance dog (AD) partners that wherever we go, our dogs attract attention. Some partners enjoy a certain amount of attention from the public as an opportunity to educate or to feel less isolated. However, almost every AD partner I know — and I know a lot of people with guide, hearing, and service dogs — hates the constant intrusions, interruptions, and distractions of members of the public asking them about their AD or talking to, petting, or otherwise distracting their AD from its job. We find the work involved with constantly interacting with people we have not chosen to interact with exhausting.
The overwhelming majority of the people who cause us so much distress do it unwittingly, with only good intentions. This is part of what can make it so hard to deal with. These kind-hearted, dog-loving people usually feel happy and excited to see a working dog and may feel a connection to that team because of their relationship with me or Barnum. They may want to connect with that person or their dog, thinking that they are offering support by way of understanding. What they often don’t realize is that the partner/handler’s experience is quite different. We deal with comments, questions, and distractions all day. We generally don’t care if your friend or niece has a SD, or if you puppy-raised once, or if you follow a hearing-dog blog.
Within an hour or two of being in public, I can have a dozen people stop me to ask, “What kind of dog is that?” “What’s his name?” “What does he do for you?” “Where did you get him?” “Can I pet him?” “How long have you had him?” “He’s so handsome!” “I have a dog, too, but he’s not nearly that smart!” “What a wonderful friend he must be to you!” “Aren’t you lucky to have him!” “I wish I could have a service dog,” and on and on.
The questions and comments are difficult enough, but at least we have some control over how we choose to answer (or ignore) the questions. What we cannot ignore, and what can often be dangerous to our safety and well-being, are people who interfere with our canine assistants. Any of the following constitutes interfering:
- Talking to the dog (or talking “about” the dog to their handler using a high, squeaky, excitable, baby-talk voice)
- Petting the dog
- Extending their hand for the dog to sniff
- Thumping the dog on the back as they walk by
- Shouting or making other sudden or unexpected movements to “test” the dog
- Stepping on, kicking, or running into the dog with a shopping cart (yes, people do these things)
- Leaning down to get kisses
Part of the problem seems to be that some people, like my acquaintance, are trying to be respectful and “follow the rules” but they don’t get the overall concept of what good “assistance dog etiquette” is. They see the dog’s “Don’t Pet Me” patches, so they don’t pet the dog, but they talk to the dog instead. This can be even more distracting to many dogs. This is why many of us are switching from patches and signs that say, “Don’t Pet” to “Do Not DISTRACT.” For example, my guess as to what happened in the case of my acquaintance who got kisses from the miniature poodle is that they asked to pick the dog up (which shocked me in itself! Fortunately this is something nobody ever has asked me, since I have an 80-pound dog), and when the handler said, “Sorry, no,” they either asked if they could “say hi” or they just went ahead and did it.
Note: Just because an AD partner tells you it’s okay to pet their dog or talk to their dog doesn’t mean it actually is. They may be so worn out by saying “no” all day, or they may have received enough hostile reactions to their “no,” that they just give up and allow it, hoping it will make things faster and easier than trying to explain why it’s really not okay.
I was particularly concerned when I heard the miniature poodle SD story because small breed SDs are almost always used for some sort of health alert. They may alert or respond to seizures, changes in blood sugar, or psychological states, such as panic attacks, PTSD episodes, depersonalization, dissociation, or other states that require the dog to be completely tuned in to their partner at all times. They are likely on the watch for a change in their partner’s smell, gait, facial expressions, or other behavior. A dog that is busy kissing someone or being petted is not going to notice these things. You cannot necessarily tell by looking at an AD whether it is “on duty” or not. It is safest for the team if you assume the dog is on duty.
I have heard, over the years, from my friends, health care workers, family members, and others that they approached strangers with assistance dogs because they “thought of you and Jersey/Gadget/Barnum.” I’m always shocked, and I’m almost always tongue-tied. I know they are acting out of fond feelings for me or my SD, but I want to tell them, “The kindest and most supportive thing you can do for any working or training team you see in public — the best way you can honor me and my 13 years of training and partnering with service dogs — is to completely ignore the dog.” It goes against human nature, I know. But it’s really what the vast majority of us want. It is certainly what I want when I’m in public, training or working my dog.
I feel very uncomfortable not knowing how to educate people when I hear these kinds of comments. They pop up out of nowhere, and not usually in contexts where I can stop what I’m doing and go into gentle-assistance-dog-handler-education-mode. So I often say nothing. Then I feel guilty that I am contributing to the problems other handlers are facing with these people who likely think I approve and support their choices to interact with strangers with working dogs.
2. A person’s relationship to my dog — as a dog, not as my working dog — is more important to them than their relationship with me.
Someone recently ended a relationship with me because we had differing desires for how he would interact with my dog and what we saw his role as being. This was someone whom I perceived as “a friend who really likes my dogs.” I thought he was interested in helping me out with them in part because it was useful to me, and in part because he enjoyed his time with my dogs. I discovered, however, that his interest was entirely in having fun with my dogs, and that he did not consider me a friend. This has been a painful discovery for me.
I thought we were friends with a long history of a shared love of my dogs. I knew that there were sometimes conflicting desires about how he wanted to interact with my dogs versus how I wanted them to interact together, but I thought we had the same goal of me having healthy, happy, good working partners. In a recent interaction where this person explained his perception of our relationship, he said that his only sadness was that he would not be interacting with my dogs anymore. He did not feel sad that we had ended our relationship with conflict.
In this conversation, he referred to my service dogs as “your pets.” To me, this explained a lot.
Our disagreements always involved my requesting him to require certain standards of behavior from my dogs. Not to jump up to greet him was one. Not to pull on the leash was another. To sit before and after exiting the vehicle. These rules were for my own and the dogs’ safety, for the dogs’ sense of stability in knowing what was expected of them in all situations, and for their ability to retain the behaviors I needed in my canine assistants.
However, this person and I had different agendas, and it’s only now that I realize how big that difference was. When I saw him allowing, or encouraging, my SD to jump up on him in greeting, I thought that he just didn’t understand why that was a problem, that I hadn’t explained it fully enough. So, I would explain again. I learned, eventually, that he did know that I didn’t want this behavior, but he wanted it, so he “snuck it in” when I wasn’t looking. It was their little secret, between them. This worked alright with my previous SD, Gadget, who was able to distinguish what behavior was allowable with this person only, and what was required with everyone else. However, Barnum, whom I’ve raised from puppyhood, doesn’t make these distinctions as easily and generalizes more. Therefore, it’s very detrimental to his training to have jumping up allowed or encouraged, ever.
Similarly, for the past two years one of my helpers and I have spent hundreds of hours working on loose leash walking with Barnum. I have worked with everyone in my household who ever has Barnum on leash for a split second about how to preserve this training. I couldn’t understand why we could never maintain our progress. Then I discovered that this guy was allowing, or even encouraging, excited behavior which involved, or led to, pulling on leash. I explained again, as I had so many times, why it was important not to let Barnum pull. That was the end of our relationship. He let me know that his interest was in having fun with my dog. Having fun did not involve having to follow my rules for interacting with Barnum.
Of course, everyone has different needs and desires in a relationship. I can understand that some people just want to have fun with a “pet” and not worry about the impact their behavior has on that dog’s person. At the same time, none of the dogs this man knew were pets. They were all working dogs. Canine assistants. The equivalent, for legal purposes, of assistive technology. My SDs make my life safer, less physically painful or exhausting, assist with my communication with others, and provide me with more independence. I almost never leave my house. I am confined to bed almost fulltime. I don’t get to socialize with anyone IRL, except my PCAs and part of my family. In other words, my life is extremely confined, constrained, and limited. Any tiny drop of increased energy, decreased pain, or increased freedom is unbelievably precious to me. And anything that interferes with my dog’s ability to provide this assistance is very painful — sometimes unbearably and heartbreakingly so. I have been without a fully trained assistance dog for three years — since Gadget’s cancer went out of remission in 2009. Sometimes I just can’t stand how long it’s taking, and how unbelievably hard it’s been, to train Gadget’s successor. Knowing that someone I considered a friend doesn’t care about that at all really hurts.
To know that someone I thought of as a friend prioritized their unalloyed fun with my dog over my ability to finish training my dog to improve the quality of my very limited life is quite painful.
3. A person’s relationship to my dog is often intertwined with their feelings about, or relationships with, their parents, their children, their inner children, their own animals, etc., and when I don’t allow them to interact with my SD in ways they find emotionally comfortable, soothing, or pleasurable, they sometimes get very upset.
Sometimes these people are aware of the emotional triggers taking place and can talk to me about it. Then we can talk about what’s going on for them. I can try to empathize with them while also taking care of my own need for my dog’s behavior to be under my control. I hope they will be able to hear me when I explain the practical reasons why I’m asking them not to talk to or pet the dog, let him jump on my bed, beg for food, get treats, etc. Sometimes we can understand and support each other. Sometimes I end up feeling very lonely and exhausted by having to defend my methods. I worry that people in my life think I’m being “mean,” or that I’m just making up rules because that’s fun.
The bottom line in all these situations is that I wish people would understand that my service dog is not a pet. He is not a toy. He is not in their life for their entertainment. Yes, very often my dog and the people in my life share play, love, and affection. I really enjoy when people in my life love and respect my dogs. But, foremost, I want them to recognize — and act accordingly — that my dog is in my life to help me lead a safer, more independent, healthier, richer life. Lately, I look back with longing on the days when I trained my previous two dogs pretty much in isolation. When I lived alone and did not have assistants and carers in my home most of the time. The lines of communication were much clearer with my dogs.
However, back in those days, I was not nearly as sick and disabled as I am now. I no longer have the option of relying primarily on my service dog and my self to survive. For better and for worse, I have people in my life much more of the time, and for better and for worse, these people interact with my service dogs or dogs-in-training, and I have to do constant training and management not only in training my SD, but with these people in how they interact with my dog.
- Sharon, the muses of Jersey and Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT