Why You Won’t Find Me Without My Service Dog

Every service dog handler will inevitably face a time, during the service dog partnership, when she must choose between participating in an activity without her service dog and sitting it out.  Please take the word “choose,” with a grain of salt, as choice plays a minimal role in the conclusion the handler will reach.

There are three primary reasons why a scenario may present itself, in which a handler may not be able to be accompanied by her service dog:

  • The hosts or other members of the party refuse to accept the presence of the service dog.
    (Situations like these are distinct from those in which a service dog team is denied access from a public accommodation.  The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the right of service dog handlers to be accompanied by their service dogs in all places where the general public is allowed.  The ADA, however, does not apply to private residences, where scenarios like these are likely to take place). If a friend or family member is hosting a get-together, at a private residence, she is within her legal rights to choose not to invite a service dog team or to invite the person with a disability, with the stipulation that the service dog is not welcome.  Other scenarios may involve a friend or family member who simply refuses to go somewhere with the person with a disability, if the service dog is to come along…and so on.
  • The service dog is sick, injured or otherwise unable to work.
    It’s inevitable that, at some point during a service dog’s working career, he or she will be taken out of commission by illness, injury or other changes in his ability to work.  Something like a respiratory infection, injured paw or just a single day of having an upset stomach is enough reason to take the dog off-duty, until he’s back to his normal, healthy condition.
  • The environment or nature of the activity is incompatible with safe handling practices, compromises the welfare of the service dog or is simply inaccessible to a service dog team.
    These scenarios can vary significantly from one service dog team to the other, depending on the needs of the particular dog and what his job involves.  Some handlers may not want to expose their service dogs to extremely loud noises, so they may avoid concerts, movie theaters, events with fireworks or other similar environments.  Other activities simply may not be possible for a person with a disability to take part in, with her service dog, like some outdoor recreational sports.

It will be much easier for others to understand why choice has minimal influence on a service dog handler’s decision not to participate in any particular activity when the analogy is made between the role a service dog plays in his disabled handler’s life and that of which any other medical equipment would.  While our service dogs are certainly much more than inanimate objects, their jobs help us in a similar manner to any piece of medical equipment or other auxiliary aid.  It would be unreasonable to expect a physically disabled individual to forgo the use of her wheelchair or cane, a person with diabetes not to use a glucose test meter, a person with a severe allergy to leave her EpiPen behind, and other such restrictions.  It is equally unfair to expect a person with a disability to participate in activities without the help of her service dog.  In most cases, a piece of medical equipment can never offer the amount of assistance that a trained service dog can.

Bradley lies under my chair at my best friend’s wedding.

Once a person with a disability welcomes a service dog into her life, doors open and the world gets bigger for the handler.  In general, it should be assumed that, at the handler’s discretion, wherever she goes, her service dog will be with her.  Of course, sometimes exceptions must be made, when circumstances are beyond the handler’s control.  Because each service dog team is unique, the allowances for exceptions will vary.

Not only do service dogs enhance the independence their handlers experience, but they also provide life-saving assistance.  The invaluable skills that service dogs offer not only make it possible for their handlers to get out of the house safely, but also improve the degree of enjoyment the handlers get out of these experiences.

How All of this Relates to Bradley and I
Since Bradley has been working as my service dog, I have been fortunate enough to have very few experiences in which I have had to decide whether or not to leave the home without him.  Most of these have been limited to short-lived health related problems, on Bradley’s end, like occasional upset stomachs.  My friends and family have learned, over the past two years or so, that Bradley goes everywhere I go.

Like many service dog handlers, I embrace a “policy” of, “If my service dog can’t go, neither can I.”  When circumstances are at least somewhat within my control, I will make almost no exceptions.  Being accompanied by Bradley is an accommodation that is necessary for my well-being.  That means, regardless of the nature of the outing, whether it’s a funeral, wedding, dinner at a restaurant, trip to the zoo, walk in the park, going to church, visiting family, a trip to the ER or admittance into the hospital, it’s a given that, as long as he’s able to, Bradley will remain at my side.

Bradley sits attentively, next to my stretcher, in the ER.

Why Am I So ‘Rigid’?
I’ve consistently felt that it should never be expected of a service dog handler to justify her need to be accompanied by her service dog, under any circumstances, to anyone who isn’t legally obligated to verify such need for accommodation.  The assessment of the handler’s need for the assistance of her service dog should first be made at the sole discretion of the person with a disability.  Only she can fully grasp what she can safely do with and without her service dog.  When others presume to make such an assessment of their own, they are, despite their best intentions, doing so out of some degree of ignorance.  Asking the person with the disability how she can best be accommodated is the only accurate manner in which to obtain this information.

I’m happy to go into some detail about why I need to be accompanied by Bradley, as an accommodation to mitigate my disabilities but want to emphasize that, by doing so, I’m not promoting an expectation that other handlers should be as comfortable in doing so, themselves.

The assistance service dogs provide to their disabled handlers is unmatched by help that may be offered by well-meaning friends, family members and other members of a party.  In my experience, the most prevalent response to the prospect of my missing out on an experience, as a result of Bradley’s inability to attend, is the suggestion that those who will be with me can pick up the slack.  This isn’t true.

While Bradley happens to play multiple roles, as a service dog (guide dog, psychiatric service dog, mobility assistance dog), a combination of roles that no single human could assume, in regard to other service dog teams, the type of work the service dog’s job involves is generally irrelevant when assessing the person’s need for the dog’s assistance.  A service dog team is just that, a team.  Not only do we learn how to receive the help our service dogs have to offer, but the teamwork between the handler and service dog also fosters a bond which allows the two to communicate almost effortlessly and, ultimately, more effectively than could be achieved with a human helper.  This is very true of my relationship with Bradley, which means that a human helper may less than suffice to meet my needs.

  • Bradley’s role as a guide dog: It’s likely that folks may assume that this part of Bradley’s job is easily interchangeable with the help of a human guide or a mobility cane.  It is true that I am trained in Orientation and Mobility, the skill that facilitates independent navigation for the blind, with the use of a long mobility cane. When Bradley is not able to work as a guide for me, I must use my cane to navigate my environment.  Please don’t presume to believe that the use of a mobility cane is just as sufficient for mobility as a guide dog.  While some blind individuals’ opinions on this may vary, in my case, I will always prefer the security of a well trained, sentient assistant: my guide dog.Human guides can certainly be helpful, but until one acts as one, I don’t think most people appreciate just how much responsibility is assumed in this role.  There must be precise communication between the guide and the blind individual and the guide must learn to navigate for two, remaining acutely aware of potential hazards in the environment.  Without prior instruction, the guide may not possess such skill.  Furthermore, few blind people have enough experience working with human guides to navigate their surroundings as safely as they would with the more familiar cane or guide dog.
  • Bradley’s role as a psychiatric service dog: This part of Bradley’s job is nearly impossible for a human helper to replicate.  Bradley is trained to recognize subtle cues that indicate I am in or approaching a state of distress.  Likewise, I’ve learned to respond to the signals Bradley gives me, as discretely as if we had our own language- and we practically do.  Any assistance a human helper may be able to offer, in regard to this part of my disability would likely amount to “too little, too late.”
  • Bradley’s role as a mobility assistance dog: The work Bradley performs to assist me with my mobility impairments are primarily of a preventative nature.  This means that he performs various tasks to prevent me from falling.  While a human helper could certainly offer a degree of physical assistance, in this area, I would remain limited in what I could do.  And, depending on the activity, I could be so limited that the entire experience would be unsafe.

Photo credit: Wind Over Wings
This is Teddy, a Saw Whet Owl at Wind Over Wings (a raptor rescue I volunteered for) I chose not to bring Bradley to the raptor rescue because I felt it would be an incompatible match for all parties. I was cleaning cages and wouldn’t be able to handle Bradley. I’m sure some of the animals would have taken issue Bradley’s presence. Working with other animals, who are not compatible with dogs, have been the few times when I have chosen to leave Bradley home. It was my choice to do so.

Modifying My Rule
As referenced earlier, there are almost never exceptions to the rule that if Bradley cannot go, I cannot go.  However, life does happen and it doesn’t always go as planned.  While I may make modifications to plans, to allow myself to participate in an activity without Bradley, by doing so, I am making a tremendous sacrifice.  I’ve learned, from past experience, that my choice to leave the house without Bradley can have devastating consequences.  In those situations, I’ve consistently found myself reprimanding myself for having known better.  I will advocate for my “choice” to the end of the Earth, and I believe I’ve learned my lesson about which is the right one for me: Keeping Bradley by my side.

Why Don’t I Utilize Alternative Means of Assistance for Myself?
I do!  Having a service dog doesn’t “fix” everything.  Despite the extent of help Bradley provides me with, his assistance is only one outlet for mitigating my disabilities.  I do depend on him for my independence, but without additional resources, the degree to which my disabilities affect my life would be significantly altered.  Neither the additional means of assistance, nor my partnership with Bradley are intended to replace the other.  Bradley is part of the equation of resources I use to live a fuller life; a large part of the equation, at that!

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