Us Versus Ourselves

Advocacy doesn’t end when the waters are calm.  Most service dog handlers are acutely sensitive to the looming potential for an access challenge, everywhere they go.  Some are more conscious of this than others, as the number of sufficiently ADA educated businesses increases at an intolerably minute rate.  Those with invisible disabilities or atypical service dog breeds tend to catch the most trouble, due to no fault of their own.

However, business owners and employees are not our enemies.  While it is certainly the responsibility of business owners to know the law, access challenges most often stem out of ignorance, rather than malice.  While not ideal, it’s reality.  For this reason, service dog handlers must be proactive.

Many service dog handlers see fighting access challenges as their obligation to other service dog teams, yet acting as an ambassador during times of peace is equally as crucial.  Doing so can achieve just as much good, if not more, than defending their rights after they have been infringed upon.

Idiom Alert: You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.

Bradley is sitting on our front steps after returning from a restaurant.

Based on what I’ve observed in various service dog contexts online, the majority of feedback about public outings is based on negative experiences.  While I sincerely appreciate the value of seeking support in your peers when you have a problem that only they could understand, it’s saddening that such little emphasis is placed on positive encounters.

In no way am I saying that service dog owners are pessimistic! That’s as far from the truth as anything could be. Spend some time in a service dog forum and you’ll see that we get excited at something as insignificant as our dogs ignoring an ice cream cone on the ground!

However, I do think we need to start a new trend of providing more support and encouragement both to each other and to the general public when things are going smoothly for us.

The vast majority of service dog handlers rely on “positive reinforcement,” methods to train our dogs.  While some rely on praise and rewards only, others are comfortable using minimal corrections as needed.  In a service dog training context, most handlers have found that using more praise and rewards than corrective measures creates a stronger bond and heightened level of mutual trust between the partners.

I think, if we applied this concept to our interactions with the general public and businesses, we could find our relationship with them much more favorable, much faster than if we continue to rely on defensive tactics.  All we have to do is take a moment, here and there (or however often it suits us), to acknowledge when others do the right thing.

The best part about showing appreciation or reinforcing something positive, is that we are only limited by our own creativity.  It can be executed on as small or as large of a scale as each individual pleases.

For example, a relatively effortless way to acknowledge others who are doing something good for us is to simply pause, smile and say, “thank you.” Of course this sounds obvious but despite my best intentions, I know there have been times when I have failed to convey my true appreciation for small favors.  We all do.  Even if you’re in a rush and having a bad day, taking a moment to focus on the positive does just as much for your own mood as that of others.

This is artwork that I received from a class Bradley and I visited for a service dog presentation.

On a larger scale, the sky’s the limit of how you can act as an ambassador for other service dog teams in your area.  Many service dog owners bring their dogs to schools to educate children about the work these dogs do, as well as make fliers about their own dog or service dogs in general, that they hand out to anyone who is interested.  Some other forms of outreach are performing demonstrations for employees at local businesses who wish to better  serve the public or submitting an editorial about how much one appreciates others who are considerate to a newspaper or periodical.

What I personally enjoy doing is contacting corporate offices, regional management or in-house management to express my appreciation for a positive experience with a well-trained staff, as well as writing positive online reviews about my experience with a particular business on websites like “Yelp.”

Baby Steps
Losing a battle does not mean we have lost the war.  No matter how much positive feedback we give to those who are doing good, we will always continue to encounter some people who have no desire to learn or do the right thing.  While there are obvious steps we can take to defend our rights after they have been infringed upon, like formal complaints and lawsuits, there are still things we can do to provide incentives for businesses to clean up their acts.

It never ceases to bewilder me, why service dog owners continue to patronize businesses who have a history of treating them poorly.  One company, in particular, has a nasty history of illegally denying access and otherwise showing rudeness to service dog teams.  Yet, plenty of service dog teams continue to patronize this business and others like it.  Acquiescence is acceptance and if companies know they’re missing out on the business of an entire demographic of people, eventually, they’ll take note.  Don’t give anyone the satisfaction of getting away with immoral and illegal behavior!

Why should we bother reinforcing the good in people?  After all, the ones who are already doing right by us aren’t the ones we have to worry about.  Right?  While approaching this issue from that perspective makes sense, it would be very narrow-minded of us to accept it as fact and dismiss the concept altogether.

From a logical standpoint, we can hope, that at least one person who has a positive experience with a service dog team will go on to share that anecdote with someone else, who will go on to put their new knowledge about service dog etiquette to use one day.  According to the theory, “Six Degrees of Separation,” every person can be connected to the other through a chain of no more than five acquaintances in between.  That should be enough to add some healthy momentum to a growing trend of service dog savvy people!

Above and Beyond
I do want to clarify, for those who aren’t up to speed with the Americans with Disabilities Act and service dog etiquette, that service dog handlers are legally protected against discrimination, just as anyone else with a disability is.  It is not our legal responsibility to educate the public about our rights.  In cases of illegal access challenges, it is the fault of the business or other respective entity that is denying access; not the service dog handler.  Taking proactive measures to educate the general public about our legal and moral rights is going above and beyond what is required of us.  However, it is my belief that, for those of us who are able to, the extra effort will pay off ten fold in the long run.

For more related information, read: The Rift Between the Law and Public Perception


One thought on “Us Versus Ourselves

  1. Having been a professional disability rights advocate, I know first hand that there’s an appropriate way to advocate and a way that can actually damage your cause.

    You’re right about the negativity. It is important to recognize and celebrate the positive experiences we have.

    Even when a business makes a mistake, we can thank them for what they did do right. Being offended by their mistake or misunderstanding of the law and going after them with both barrels blazing will only cause them to shut down and tune out.

    As you’ve pointed out many times, often the mistakes made are a result of an ignorance of the law, it’s not intentional or purposefully discriminatory.

    I believe we can be our own worst enemies, thinking we are being educators and ambassadors for the disabled community, but using aggressive language and going on the attack because we allow our emotions to drive us.

    Thanks for this great post! Your words of advice are always sound and uplifting.

    Hugs and Tail Wags

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