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!

Is Therapy Dogs International Discriminating Against Service Dog Teams?

Therapy Dogs International (TDI) refuses to register a dog who works as a service dog.  While I have heard word of this in the past, this subject was broached again, recently.  Finding the prospect of such a policy being in effect to be troubling, I decided to contact Therapy Dogs International.  I am posting the contents of my correspondence with them, verbatim.

Subject: Service Dogs Registering with TDI

May 10 (3 days ago)

to tdi

“To Whom it May Concern,
It has been brought to my attention, on several occasions, that Therapy Dogs International disqualifies service dogs (assistance dogs for people with disabilities) from registering.  I would like to inquire about whether this is true and if so, I would greatly appreciate a short explanation of the reason for this policy.  Many people within the service dog community are passionate about doing therapy work with their service dogs and wish to register with TDI.

Thank you for any help you may give me in this matter,
Elizabeth Bossoli”

May 10 (3 days ago)

to PDPM

Elizabeth,

A service dog is what it states, a service dog.  Who does the service dog serve?  A human in need of a service dog.  If a dog is a service dog it must focus on the person in need of the service.  A therapy dog is a therapy dog and must focus on the person being seen to provide emotional service.  A dog cannot give its all and concentrate on two people at once.  It is unfair to demand this of a dog.  TDI prides itself in protecting the people we see and also the dogs we register. 
We don’t discriminate against you, we are protecting service animals from serving double duty and we are trying to bring to those in need a dog who can be totally focused on the person being visited.  Physically challenged people can register a pet dog with us after passing our test, just not their service dog. 

Thank You,
TDI”

More information about therapy dogs- specifically the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals can be found on the Please Don’t Pet Me website.

Bradley is my hero

It wasn’t my intention to return from my extended absence, with this post, but the topic is currently relevant.  Thanks for humoring me 🙂

Bradley has been nominated in the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards! You can show your support for him and help him get the recognition I wholeheartedly believe he deserves, by voting for him daily.

You can go to http://pleasedontpetme.com/hero to go directly to Bradley’s page and vote!

(I promise, I’ll be back with posts of more substance, in the very near future!)

This photo shows Bradley with his head on my chest, looking at me very intensely, as he alerts to an impending crisis.

What Bradley and I Have Been Up To: Part 1

As referenced in my previous post, Bradley graduated from “In Training,” status to “Service Dog.”  Anyone, who has read my last post, before I stopped updating this blog, may be scratching their heads, at this point.  Where I last left off, I had made the determination that Bradley could not meet my needs as a service dog.  I made the difficult decision to apply for a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  That is where the roller coaster began.

The Ups and Downs of a Dream Come True
I initiated the application process with the guide dog school of my choice, Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB).  After hours and hours of research, I decided that GEB was the best match for me.  I was incredibly impressed with everything I learned about them and was absolutely giddy about the prospect of acquiring a guide dog from them.  Within about a month of completing the entire application process, including the home interview, I received word that I had been accepted into their program and would be contacted once the right dog and an opening in a class was found for me.

What a surprise it was, when I received that phone call, and my heart sank down into my stomach.  I should have been ecstatic.  Where had my giddiness gone?  I had just been told that a dream I had, for most of my life, was coming true.  I must have sounded like the most underwhelmed future GEB student that the admissions director had ever given this news to.

Throughout the month of waiting, my confidence in my decision to acquire a guide dog from a school had waxed and waned.  At one point, I learned that if I was accepted into the school, I would receive a phone call, but if I was not accepted, I would receive a letter.  Each day I held my breath, as I sifted through the mail, dreading a letter from Guiding Eyes.  At times, I maintained a level of eager anticipation that I would receive a call, and not a letter..  At others, however, I secretly hoped that it wasn’t in the stars for me to be accepted, at that point in my life.  I was so conflicted that I didn’t know whether I would be devastated by rejection, or if there was a chance that having the decision completely out of my hands would lift the weight I was constantly carrying on my shoulders.

After receiving the call that told me I had been accepted, the roller coaster of emotions that I had been experiencing gained exponential momentum.  My life was about to change.  I had a fairy tale-like image in my mind, that once I acquired a guide dog, doors would open for me that, before, were neither possible, nor fathomable.

Why Wasn’t I Thrilled with the Realization of my Dream?

Even without Bradley acting as a guide dog for me, I was dependent on our partnership to get through day to day life.

Around the time when all this activity surrounding my acceptance into Guiding Eyes was happening, Bradley was about two years old.  Because I started training him when he was so young, we had a two year working partnership under our belts.  Even though I was accepted by GEB, I planned to continue Bradley’s training.  I told myself and others that I made that decision so I could switch dogs, depending on what I needed most in a particular situation (ex. If I felt that I would need psychiatric assistance, which was Bradley’s strong point, I would take him out with me, while if I knew that it was guiding that I needed most, I would take my guide dog out with me).  What I was afraid to admit to myself was that there would never be a cut and dry situation in which I could determine which type of assistance (guiding or psych) I needed more than the other- I needed both, all the time.  I gradually became more cognizant of the fact that I would always choose Bradley.

The bond between Bradley and I had been set in stone.  To abandon that, for a partnership with another dog, would likely do irreparable damage.  That was not a risk I was willing to take.  Whether I alternated service dogs or not, I knew I would need to spend significantly more time with one dog than the other, in order to maintain the bond that a working partnership fosters.  I also knew that, by accepting a guide from GEB, I would be making a significant commitment to them, which would include making a partnership between my guide and I the first priority.  Knowing this broke my heart.  I couldn’t allow myself to make Bradley my second priority.

Every time I pondered my decision, the knowledge that one decision would undo, what took two years to accomplish, brought me to tears.  Of course, Bradley and I would maintain a strong bond, but it would be limited to the nature of a bond between a pet dog owner and her dog.  I would still love him, as if he were my child, but there’s no denying that spending every minute of every day together and having a relationship in which one of us gave the other the invaluable gift of independence, produced a connection like no other.

This is the type of relationship I would have to form with a guide dog for us to work as a team.  I would have to spend the majority of my time with my guide dog, while entrusting my life with that dog.  Without that trust and deep connection, our partnership would inevitably be limited.  That can be a recipe for disaster for a service dog team.

I slowly came to terms that, both logically and psychologically, I simply could not walk away from my partnership with Bradley.  It was unshakable and it was imperative for me to keep it that way.  As I reached that conclusion, I humbly thanked the wonderful people at GEB for the exceptional treatment they had shown me and explained that I wasn’t ready for the precious gift they had offered me.  It was a bittersweet experience making that phone call, but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the right thing for me to do.

Service Dogs as a Last Resort

Bradley sitting in front of the fireplace at the gym we go to.

Anyone who uses a service dog knows that life without one would be completely different.  These dogs are the difference between independence and total dependence on others for those of us with life-limiting disabilities.  They mitigate our disabilities in a manner that allows us to experience things that we wouldn’t be able to without the help of another person, and in some cases, they help us in a way that no human ever could.  That’s why it’s so surprising that it’s not uncommon for others, some service dog users included, to take the position that a service dog should be one of a person with a disability’s last resorts.

There are plenty of advocates for the use of service dogs by disabled people who are of the opinion that all other disability mitigating options should be exhausted before acquiring a service dog.

The Thinking Behind the “Last Resort” Mentality

There’s no arguing that deciding to use a service dog is a major life choice.  While the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, switching from alternative mobility aids (or none at all), to a service dog partner requires a significant lifestyle change.  This is a decision that is not to be rushed or taken lightly; and that is the foundation on which the mentality of seeing service dogs as a last resort is based.

Having a service dog entails all the responsibilities of normal dog ownership, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite gaining a level of independence which was previously impossible, adopting the service dog lifestyle presents a whole new set of limitations.  Not only does the disabled handler have herself to worry about, but she now has the needs of another living creature on her shoulders and will need to be considered before anything else.

Service dog handlers appreciate these sometimes challenging aspects of service dog partnership more than most others could.  It is with first hand experiences in mind that some seasoned handlers will seem to be attempting to dissuade others from adopting the service dog lifestyle.

Generally, it is the thinking of those with the “last resort” mentality, that there are probably much easier solutions to the problems our disabilities present for some of us than the major lifestyle change of getting a service dog.  Many people, both disabled and not, proclaim that if they could do something as simple as taking a pill, rather than being burdened by all that is involved with using a service dog, they would.  While it’s perfectly acceptable for them to make such a claim in reference to themselves, it isn’t fair to project their own feelings on others.

Double Standard
The majority of disabilities that service dogs are used to mitigate are not easily treated with medication.  This reality fosters an unhealthy dynamic between those whose disabilities that are helped by medication and those whose are not, and a double standard is created.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to criticize a blind guide dog user for choosing a guide dog over a cane. However, it would be just as difficult to pick an individual at random, who would support the decision of someone with a debilitating mental illness to use a psychiatric service dog instead of taking medication.

In conjunction with an existing stigma attached to mental illness, this double standard leaves those with psychiatric disabilities, who wish to use service dogs, deserted; far from a level playing field.

Flaws in the Medication Mentality
Disabilities of a psychiatric nature are not the only ones that are potentially treatable with medication.  Furthermore, medication is not the only alternative treatment or method of disability mitigation.  Options vary greatly from one disability to another, and from one person with a similar disability to another.  However, medication tends to be the common denominator in this debate.  Based on personal experience, it seems that the vast majority of the general public, as well others with disabilities has reached a consensus; if medication is a treatment option, deciding to take it should be a no-brainer.

There is no such thing as a miracle drug.  While one type of medication may be entirely effective for some people, for others, it does nothing.  Alternatively, It is not at all uncommon for the medicine to achieve the desired result, yet simultaneously produce intolerable side effects that can sometimes equate or exceed the severity of the condition it is intended to treat.

However common or socially acceptable it is to take medicine for any given medical condition, the decision to do so is a very personal one.  Factors to be taken into consideration vary from condition to condition and from individual to individual.  No one, regardless of how well-versed he or she is on the subject, should pass judgement on another for what they decide to do with their own body.

There should be no correlation between a disabled person’s willingness, or lack thereof, to experiment with various options and others’ assessments of wether that person’s decision to use a service dog was made appropriately.  In the same spirit, a person who decides to use a service dog after alternatives have proven ineffective, should not be viewed as any more validated in their position than one who simply decides that the medication is not for her.  As long as the person has dedicated as much time as is necessary, to consideration for all the responsibilities, challenges, benefits and other aspects of a service dog lifestyle he or she has made an informed decision.

Divided We Fall

Within the service dog community, there are a variety of issues that many members will never see eye to eye on.  Some of these include, but are not limited to, owner training, certification and how to handle access challenges.  While civil debate is healthy and promotes growth within the community, allowing issues like these to divide us opens the door for our rights to disappear before our eyes.

The same applies to the argument that alternative methods of disability mitigation should be attempted before one decides to use a service dog.  If we cannot agree that how each individual chooses to treat his or her disability is a personal decision and not a black and white matter, we can’t expect others to either.  We then stand the risk of having our rights amended with restrictive terms and conditions; like our disabilities being defined by how many drugs we must pump into our system behind closed doors to retain rights in the outside world.

All members of the service dog community should support one another, whether or not we agree with each other about everything.  In the United States, people with disabilities are given significant rights and unless we stand united to fiercely defend them, they can slip away.

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

The Ups, Downs and About Turns of Progress

The path to successfully owner training a service dog, at times, is a winding, bumpy, poorly lit road. Despite whatever challenges may be presented along the way, the effort is well worth it. I’ve spent the past few months reflecting on all of this.

This is a picture of Bradley and I in the parking lot at the gym.

Speed Bump
We hit a major speed bump a few months ago, when I began experiencing too much anxiety to train Bradley calmly and confidently. Bradley is very sensitive to changes in my mood and when I became stressed, so did he. This created a vicious cycle, as we would each enhance the other’s level of anxiety. This quickly escalated into me becoming anxious simply because I was worried about potential future stress! Such a dynamic was becoming counterproductive.

I became extremely discouraged by this setback and faltered in my confidence in my ability to see Bradley through to the completion of the training process. My doubt was in my own ability, not Bradley’s capacity to learn. I expressed my concern with our trainer and took comfort in her assurance that many owner trainers have similar misgivings when they hit plateaus in their training progress.

Adapting
To remedy this problem, Bradley’s trainer and I decided that she should handle him by herself during training sessions. While I would prefer to handle him myself, it wasn’t doing either of us any good for me to handle him when I wasn’t at the top of my game.

I determined another, more profound solution to this problem with the help of our trainer, as well as my psychiatrist, is to cross train Bradley as a psychiatric service dog. This will be a significant change for the better, as his sensitivity to my psychological state will be put to constructive use.

Psychiatric Service Dogs
What a psychiatric service dog is:
While most people understand the job guide dogs perform, psychiatric service dogs are far less widely known. Psychiatric service dogs, also referred to as PSD’s, are service dogs who are specifically trained to mitigate their handlers’ psychiatric disabilities. Just as there is an infinite variety of physical and medical disabilities, there are just as many variations of psychological disabilities. The handler of a psychiatric service dog must meet the legal qualification of being disabled in order to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, just like any other type of service dog handler.  PSD’s perform tasks like alerting to symptoms, responding in a manner to lessen the severity of symptoms, grounding and many other skills.

What a PSD is not:
Many people are familiar with the term, “therapy dog,” and more people are becoming familiar with the term, “emotional support animal (ESA).” Therapy dogs and ESA’s are both distinct from each other, as well as from psychiatric service dogs. I’ll offer a brief description of therapy dogs and ESA’s to prevent any confusion between each of their roles and PSD’s.

Therapy dogs are thoroughly socialized, well-mannered dogs who are trained, tested and then certified to provide therapeutic support to well deserving members of society, like school children, hospital patients, nursing home residents and more. These dogs visit institutions to socialize with others who can benefit from the unconditional affection of a canine friend. While they play a valuable role in the lives of many people, they are not service dogs and their handlers are not afforded unrestricted public access rights with them.

On the other end of the pet therapy spectrum, is the emotional support animal (ESA). These are animals who provide comfort to their owners for not necessarily debilitating psychological conditions. These animals are not specifically trained to mitigate a disability, so they are not service animals. As such, their owners are not given public access rights. However, many statutes make provisions to allow owners of these animals to obtain housing in accommodations that are not otherwise pet friendly. Additionally, air carriers permit ESA’s to travel with their owners free of charge, provided proof of need for such an animal is presented.

It can be easy to blur the lines between therapy dogs, emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.  A common misconception is that the sole purpose of PSD’s is to provide psychological comfort simply by being present.  If that were the case, these dogs would be ESA’s, not service dogs.  As with other types of service dogs, PSD’s are specially trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities.  While their presence certainly provides their handlers with comfort, this is simply a by-product of their job.

For more information about psychiatric service dogs, please visit the Psychiatric Service Dog Society’s website.

Making Lemons into Lemonade
While Bradley’s sensitivity to my stress level initially served as a detriment to our teamwork, it presents a unique opportunity to help both of us.

By incorporating PSD work into Bradley’s job, it will both channel his awareness of my tension into a positive response, as well as act as an aid in decreasing my own anxiety.

In my particular case, I’m training Bradley to recognize when I first begin showing signs of anxiety and to alert me to it so I can take action to prevent it from becoming worse.  In addition to alerting to my anxiety, I’m working on having him perform grounding tasks, like pressing his body against mine, nudging and licking me.

So far, this has put a positive twist on an unpleasant situation.

Career Evolution
In other news, I’ve made a very significant decision that is going to change the nature of my partnership with Bradley.

The reality has set in that I’m not going to be capable of training Bradley to perform at the level of reliability I need to obtain the degree of independence I desire.  While Bradley has a phenomenal temperament and eagerness to learn, my lack of guide dog training expertise is going to prevent us from reaching our full potential as dog guide team.

While I’m confident that Bradley will learn basic guide skills like obstacle avoidance, stopping at steps, finding certain items of interest, etc., I’m not as secure in my ability to teach him vital skills like intelligent disobedience and more advanced work in traffic.  Even if I could, I can’t say I’d be able to trust my life in the skills I taught him.

Therefore, I have made the decision to apply for a program trained guide dog.  Because Bradley enjoys working so much and we have come so far, I will not be retiring him from service work completely.  Despite not reaching the extent of independence I need, Bradley can still help me do more than I could do on my own.

Many guide dog programs refer to dogs who are deemed unsuitable for guide work and go onto working as other types of service dogs or bomb sniffing dogs as “career change” dogs.  While Bradley’s career has changed a bit, it’s more like a change in his job description.  His career is evolving but he’s still going to play a very significant role in our partnership.

That being said, I’m absolutely ecstatic at the thought of getting a program trained guide.  I feel that in doing so, doors will open that have never been open for me before.

In a few weeks, I’ll be applying with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York.  So, not only will I continue to chronicle Bradley’s progress in this blog, but now I’ll also be sharing my experiences applying for and acquiring a program trained guide dog.

Adults Say the Darndest Things

As a service dog handler, one must expect to hear a wide variety of comments and questions from strangers on a regular basis.  It’s very common and completely normal, as there are still many people who have never seen a service dog team and don’t expect to encounter a dog in a public place.  There are several recurrent comments that service dog handlers get used to hearing, like “look at the dog!” Most of the things people say are innocent and questions are asked out of genuine curiosity.  However, there are a variety of things people have said and done that are ignorant or unacceptable.

Everyone’s An Expert
“You should do this [insert completely irrelevant training method here] instead of what you’re doing.”
Apparently there are a lot more people moonlighting as service dog trainers than I realized!  Among some of the irritating comments strangers make, are those that are intended to tell me how I should be training or handling my service dog.  I understand that some people interject with good intentions, but I have yet to encounter anyone who has made it clear to me that they have a solid professional dog training background or even service dog training experience.   I’m no professional trainer myself, but I do know my dog and I certainly know myself, which are the two most important factors in training one’s own service dog.

On the other end of the spectrum are dog owners who think that by training my own service dog, I must be interested in training their dogs.  I don’t mind this as much because at least these people have some faith in my competence.

Thanks, I’ll be here all week.  Try the veal!
Have you ever walked into a room and felt like everyone was looking at or talking about you?  If you walked into the room with a service dog, that would be true.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the vast majority of the general public takes the presence of a service dog as an open invitation to ask about the handler’s disability.  A related phenomenon is the assumption that the handler must be comfortable hearing complete strangers openly discuss this disability, as if he or she can’t hear them.

As I see it, there really is no polite way to bring up someone’s disability in conversation.  Some service dog handlers have no problem openly discussing their disability with others because it’s a means of educating others.  However, others have no desire to and that should be respected.  Leave it to the handler to broach the subject during conversation.

There certainly isn’t a polite way to talk about a service dog handler’s disability with someone else, as if the handler isn’t even there.  I’ve found that this occurs most often in the check-out lines at stores.  Perhaps the tension of impatient shoppers changes social dynamics in a manner that makes people feel it’s acceptable to talk about one another in an audible voice.  In reality, 99% of what I hear people discuss about me or my service dog is not said with any malice whatsoever.  However, it would be nice not to be treated like an art exhibit, constantly getting obvious stares peppered with colorful commentary.

That’s life as a service dog handler though. There will always be people who are enthralled with or aghast by the presence of a dog where one doesn’t expect to see one.  Please try to keep in mind that service dog handlers are living, breathing humans with feelings too.

Blatant Disregard
Many service dogs wear a vest or other accessories with patches that say something along the lines of “Please don’t pet me.  I’m working.”  If people obeyed road signs and traffic lights like they respected this request, driving down the street would be a near death experience.

You’d be amazed at how some people react to reading patches like these.  I’ve heard everything from, “Aww, it says please don’t pet me I’m working,” as if Bradley was playing dress-up as a service dog, to people reading the patch and immediately proceeding to pet him.

There have even been parents with such audacity to tell their children to pet the dog anyway because the handler is blind and won’t know the dog is being pet!
1. A blind handler can tell when her dog is being distracted.
2. Most of the people who have heard parents say this to their children are not blind.
3. This should go without saying: No child should ever approach or touch any dog without permission from the dog’s owner.  Encouraging a child to do this is not only inconsiderate, but it’s also putting the child at risk for being bitten!

Honorary Mention

“He looks mean.” – This was said by an adult, as Bradley was sleeping on the floor, being as far from intimidating as he could possibly be.

“Does he bite?”- No, but that doesn’t mean you may pet him.

“That’s animal abuse!” – Really?  I’m pretty sure he prefers it to staying home with nothing to do.

“Does he read your mind to know where to go?” – That would be some service dog!

Striding Toward Guiding

Bradley relaxes while I spend an hour looking at paint colors.

A friend of mine, who has given me a great deal of guidance in my training efforts, offered an amusing, yet accurate piece of anecdotal wisdom.  She expressed that having a smart dog, while it is quite a blessing, can also serve as a disadvantage to the trainer. A smart dog who learns quickly with little effort on the trainer’s part, doesn’t provide the trainer with a variety of challenges to improve her skill in the long run.  In a sense, this is the predicament in which I am with Bradley.

I now find myself with a dog who has practically trained himself to be a guide dog and who could probably beat me in a game of Scrabble if he wanted to.  He’s learning faster than I can teach him.

Before this entry takes the tone of bragging even further, let me interject.  While I’m proud of and amazed by the extent of Bradley’s intelligence, I can’t take credit for it any more than I can for his good looks.  If anything, my own lack of skill has inhibited his progress.  It may be better that way though.  Who knows what he could have achieved in more capable hands?  The bumper sticker that says, “My Golden Retriever is smarter than your honor student,” comes to mind.

Approaching the Threshold
A few weeks ago, Bradley had his first opportunity to really work in his harness.  He’s been wearing his harness when I take him out for a couple months now, but until a recently, he’s only been working on a leather slip lead.

We were at the mall, on a training mission, and I decided to give his harness a test drive.  My husband planted himself on a bench and I set out with Bradley’s harness in hand.

By default, a dog will resist against pressure on his chest, so the nature of the equipment provided Bradley with the encouragement he needed to do a quarter of what his job involves: gently pulling me.  Bradley’s first inclination is to heel at my side without pulling, so it took a little extra verbal reinforcement from me for him to realize that pulling was OK under these circumstances.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. He took control of the situation as if he had an epiphany, finally realizing his role in our partnership.  He proceeded with the ideal level of resistance against my grip and matched my pace with expert precision.  He escorted me down the walkway with purpose, as if he knew exactly where he was going.  To the untrained eye, he appeared to be performing with the finesse of a seasoned guide- although, I knew better.

Simultaneously overcome with awe and befuddlement, I embraced Bradley’s newfound drive, whatever it may have been.  My intention was to allow him to guide me around, wherever he chose to go, to show him that he could make decisions for himself and I would follow his lead.  I set the bar just about as low as it could go and he soared above it within the first 30 seconds of the experiment.

At a brisk, yet controlled pace, Bradley took me through the mall as if he knew just exactly where we were going.  He guided me to the end of one section of the mall, into the entrance of a department store and then back out the way we came.  To my surprise, his next choice was to turn down the hall from which we came.  He proceeded to bring me back to the bench, where we left my husband.

My jaw dropped with an intensity it never before had . I was stunned.  I’ve worked on a “go to daddy” command with Bradley, but he was given no instruction whatsoever this time.  Maybe it was just a stroke of luck. I expressed my delight to my husband and decided to give it another go.  After all, an experiment isn’t valid unless its results can be reproduced.

These results were successfully reproduced- multiple times.  It was incredible!

My reason for performing this exercise was to establish a foundation for the skills that Bradley will need to use as a working guide dog.  In Bradley’s case, this means teaching him to think in a manner I’ve never asked of him.  Rather than telling him to follow my lead with unwavering compliance, I must now ask him to do what I say but to think for himself.  It’ll be asking him to use a muscle he didn’t know he had.

I should have planted this seed a long time ago, when I first started training him.  Thank goodness he’s such a forgiving student because he has quite the inexperienced teacher!

Thinking Outside the Box
What sets service dogs apart from others isn’t their level of training, but the small cognitive miracles that allow them to manipulate this training to its maximum potential.  Service dogs are invaluable assets to their handlers because they do so much more than obey learned commands.  They’re neither robotic, nor omniscient, but rather compliant assistants with minds like sponges.

In almost all cases, in order to perform his job well, a service dog needs a calculated balance between obedience and ingenuity.  A great deal of this substance is dependent on training, but some of it must be inherent within the dog, independent of training. The responsibility of fostering this is in the hands of the trainer.

Wrapping my head around just how to foster this phenomenon within Bradley has been a learning experience for me.  Training concrete skills like down, stay, recall, etc. are a piece of cake.  Training a dog to act on little more than intuition, on the other hand, is not.

In the past couple of months, Bradley has adopted a new level of awareness, which is responsible for him developing what can only be described as intuition.  From a behavioral standpoint, I suppose his new sharpness of mind is more thanks to conditioning than some sort of sixth sense.  All I can say is that these new skills were not ingrained in his psyche intentionally by me.

For example, I trained Bradley to find and retrieve my phone on command.  On a separate occasion, I trained him to pick up my keys when I dropped them.  Recently, I dropped my phone while he wasn’t in the room but he heard it hit the floor.  He immediately came into the room, picked up my phone and gave it to me.  This was the first time he shaped a completed behavior on his own.  He’s repeated this skill a few times since the first.  Most remarkable of these incidents was when he accidentally knocked the TV remote off the coffee table with his tail and immediately picked it up and gave it to me.  Needless to say, I was impressed!

Another task Bradley’s been taking it upon himself to perform is to bring me to the exit of a store.  I’ve been working on the “find the door” command with him but every once in a while he’ll start looking for it without me asking him to do so.  He’s also started taking me, against my will, to the entrances of stores from outside.  It was during our mall experiment that he brought me into a store I wouldn’t have otherwise gone into.  No one else was in there, except a single employee, so it was very awkward.  I had to pretend I meant to go in there and browse around as if I was interested for a few minutes!  I had a good laugh about it afterwards.

While taking me in or out of somewhere I didn’t tell him to isn’t a desirable quality, it shows me that he grasps the concept of the skill and it shouldn’t take long for him to respond to the cue reliably. He’s already showing great promise by bringing me into the entrances of familiar stores and out through the exit when we really are done there.  This is a tremendous help to me, as I frequently lose my bearings inside large stores.

Intelligent Disobedience
One of the most important elements of a guide dog’s training is the dog’s ability to recognize when it’s imprudent or unsafe to obey the handler’s command.  This is referred to as intelligent disobedience.  A guide dog with no sense of intelligent disobedience can put a handler in grave danger.  A good example of when this would be necessary is crossing the street.  A bicycle may be approaching and the handler doesn’t hear it. She’ll instruct the dog to cross the street and unless the dog can make the decision to remain in place, defying the command, a collision may occur.

I must confess; I haven’t dedicated nearly as much time to exposing Bradley to this concept as I should have.  Although recent events suggest that Bradley may already possess what it takes to make such determinations.  That’s a good starting point, but it’s not enough.  Fine tuning and proofing is definitely in order and I’ll undoubtedly need to work on this with our trainer’s help.

Intelligent disobedience is a delicate concept that must be introduced and reinforced with care.  There’s a fine line between showing a dog it’s OK to disobey under select circumstances but not others and teaching a dog that he can consistently choose whether or not to comply with a command.  In Bradley’s case, my delay in introducing intelligent disobedience is going to make his learning process more difficult.  However, I strongly believe he has it in him.

Bradley is content on a crisp December day.

Teacher’s Pet
As I mentioned earlier, a smart dog isn’t as demanding as a slow learner.  His trainer isn’t challenged to meet the dog’s training needs so she misses out on the opportunity to gain new skills.  However, that doesn’t mean training an intelligent, willing worker is devoid of learning experiences.  In fact, I’ve been pushed to approach this journey from an entirely different perspective from where I originally expected to.  Rather than learning how I’ll eventually teach Bradley something, I find myself trying to figure out how I already did.

On Courtesy, Etiquette and Common Sense

Anyone who has ever handled a service dog in public knows that getting barraged with questions and unsolicited feedback from others is inevitable.  Sometimes these inquiries and comments are less than considerate.  While there is a disappointing minority of society who will consciously make hurtful remarks or ask inappropriate question, the vast majority of those who offend do so without mal intent.

Political correctness isn’t the name of the game.  Service dog handlers can handle an awkwardly phrased question or comment.  We won’t broadcast your gaffe across all mainstream media outlets- just in our blogs and online forums [kidding!].  It’s pretty easy to differentiate between someone whose goal is to hurt feelings and someone who is genuinely interested in what you have to say.  When you talk to a service dog handler, you don’t have to step on eggshells.  All that most service dog handlers ask is that others take their feelings into consideration, as they would to any other person.

Everyone Has a First Time
Service dogs are  becoming exponentially more common.

“Studies released in 1990 and 1992 indicated     that the percentage of people with disabilities who wanted a dog trained for them had risen 13-fold.” (History & Future http://www.pawswithacause.org/history.asp )

If you have yet to encounter a service dog team, it’s more likely than not that you will in the future.  No one expects you to inherently know the do’s and don’t’s of service dog etiquette.  A willingness to learn is a great start though!

There are several points of etiquette and courtesy that should be observed in regard to a service dog team. These are in the interest of the handler’s safety, as well as in consideration for the handler’s feelings.

The Initial Encounter
Upon entering a place of business with Bradley, I’m always extremely appreciative of employees who kindly ask if I need any help and then move on once I politely decline their offers.  Greeting a service dog handler in such a manner is an excellent way to make her feel welcome and like slightly less of a spectacle.  I’d love to see more business owners encourage this practice among employees.

It’s common and understandable for many people to be startled initially upon seeing a service dog in a public place where one wouldn’t expect to see a dog.  I’ve witnessed a whole range of reactions to Bradley’s presence.  Most of the time I can observe facial expressions change before my eyes.  Sometimes as soon as others see Bradley, their eyes light up and the corners of their mouths turn up into a grin.  Other times there are people whose faces are taken hostage by scathing looks of disgust, as if they just smelled something in the process of rotting.

If you dislike or are afraid of dogs, there’s no reason to flee.  Just as service dog handlers appreciate consideration for their feelings and needs, we try to be equally as considerate of others.  We go to great lengths to train and handle our dogs in a manner that will not be obtrusive to others.  Our dogs are well groomed and healthy when we take them with us to public places.

If you’re a dog lover, no one understands how difficult it is to ignore one as well as I! Even as a  handler myself, when I encounter another service dog in public, I turn to mush.  Resisting the temptation to gush over the dog is crucial.   Service dogs are not there to be social and in some cases, neither is the person.

Some service dogs may wear vests with patches that say, “Ask to pet me, I’m friendly.”  In the absence of such a patch, and especially in the presence of one that says, “don’t pet me, I’m working”, assume that touching the dog is out of the question.

Interacting with a Service Dog Handler
Handling a service dog guarantees that all eyes will be on you.  However, such amounts of attention are not what most handlers want and, at times, it gets overwhelming.  It is equally important not to give a service dog team excessive, unwarranted attention as it is not to isolate them.

Engage a service dog handler in conversation as you would someone without a four-legged, tail wagging assistant by her side.  Speak directly to the person.  Even if you’re talking about the dog, don’t make eye contact with the dog, make kissing, cooing or other types of sounds to the dog, and as advised earlier, don’t touch the dog.

Think Before You Speak
There are several very common questions and comments that service dog handlers are presented with on a regular basis.  While the majority of those who broach these subjects don’t mean to offend, it’s insensitive to expect a handler to feel comfortable elaborating on them.

Many people are understandably intrigued by the feat of a dog assisting someone with a disability.  However, the presence of the service dog tends to be misinterpreted as the handler’s willingness to openly discuss her disability.  Most handlers get asked questions like, “What does the dog do for you?” and “What’s your disability?”.  An incredibly common remark is, “You don’t look disabled.”

While those comments may not be uttered with mal intent, most handlers feel that they’re out of line.  As a general rule, don’t mention the handler’s disability unless she brings it up first. Even so, don’t assume that she’ll be willing to talk openly about such a personal subject.

Earlier today, I was out shopping  and a woman asked me what I was training Bradley for, in a condescending tone I might add.  While that question may seem innocent enough, answering it gives the same information as if she had asked, “What is your disability?” While this particular woman may have thought I was training him for a program or someone else, there are still plenty of people ask the same question after learning that I’m training him for myself.

In Training Vest

An example of a vest that a service dog in training may wear.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
A common mistake many people make is that a handler is training the dog, even when the dog is a working, trained service dog.  Sometime this is because many people have the misconception that guide dogs are the only kind of service dog.  Therefore, they assume that a dog who is not obviously guiding the handler or is not wearing typical guide dog gear, must still be in the training phase of his career.  In fact, there are other types of service dogs whose jobs aren’t as outwardly obvious and may not be equipped with harnesses like a guide dog.

Another possible reason for the “service dog in training” misconception is a handler who doesn’t appear to be disabled.  Others make the assumption that if the handler isn’t disabled, she must be training the dog for someone else.  There are a variety of types of service dogs, a wider variety of disabilities and an even wider variety of training and handling methods.  Unless the dog is wearing a vest that says, “in training”, don’t assume the dog is a trainee.

No Autographs, Please.
Most service dog handlers are happy to answer a few, short questions from curious bystanders, under the right circumstances.  However, there is a time and a place for everything.  Approaching a service dog handler to inquire about the dog’s job isn’t always appropriate.  Service dog handlers are just as subject to schedules, the demands of their families, social obligations and other everyday stresses as anyone else.  As patient as we try to be, we are not there to provide a social service or entertainment.

Quite frequently, parents will approach me with their young children, encouraging the children to pet Bradley.  While I appreciate the significance of introducing children to dogs early in life, these are not the appropriate circumstances under which to do so.  Unfortunately, parents respond the most defensively of anyone who gets told that the dog is working and cannot be pet.  I’ve gotten some nasty comments from parents when I politely ask them not to allow their child to pet Bradley.  Please understand that service dogs have a job to do and handlers cannot make exceptions for children.

Another common request is for the dog to demonstrate his skills.  Sometimes handlers are asked to do this to validate their right to have the dogs accompany them but more often it is for the entertainment or curiosity of others. (It is not legal for a handler to demonstrate the dog’s skills to gain access to a business.) Not only is this intrusive, but it is also unrealistic.  A large percentage of service dogs perform tasks under very specific circumstances, like alerting to a seizure or low pressure or responding to psychiatric condition like a dissociative state.  These scenarios cannot be replicated for the sake of demonstration or amusement.

Respect the Handler’s Limitations
Each person who uses a service dog is disabled in some way.  Guide dogs are far from the only type of service dog.  Handlers may be affected by a wide range of disabilities, including but not limited to, blindness, deafness, seizure disorders, psychiatric disorders or mobility problems.  Please be considerate of the handler’s potential limitations and respect them accordingly.  If the handler appears to be having a problem of some kind, ask her if she needs help.

Put Yourself in the Handler’s Shoes
Since there are more people who have no experience encountering a service dog team than those who have, handlers are playing the role of most people’s “first” on a daily basis.  Almost everywhere we go, there will be at least one person who has never seen a working service dog before.

Some handlers relish the opportunity to educate every curious individual who approaches them about the joys of using a service dog.  However, even the most extroverted, well spoken advocates for educating the non-service dog-using general public have their days.  Just like anyone else.  If you approach a service dog handler during her grocery shopping, in line at the bank or walking through the park on a sunny day, please don’t be offended if she doesn’t engage you in a lengthy conversation.

Service dog handlers are acutely conscious of the role they assume simply by going out into public with their dogs.  They must act as ambassadors for service dog teams in general.  Handlers realize that if either their demeanor or their dogs’ behavior is less than ideal, they risk leaving others with a bad first impression of service dogs.

Most service dog handlers feel obligated to positively represent an entire demographic of people, most of whom they’ll never know, every time they leave their houses.  Some people can relate to this sense of responsibility.  Speaking for myself, however, I never grasped that concept as deeply as I do now, until I started training Bradley as my service dog.

Everyone has an off day here and there.  Humans and dogs.  If you approach a service dog handler who isn’t receptive to your enthusiasm, your first reaction may be for it to leave a sour taste in your mouth.  However, the chances are, that service dog handler probably thought about it later, and wishes she had made a better impression.

Just as service dog handlers must take others’ poor choices of words with a grain of salt, it’s important for others to be aware that some responses a handler may give are not as offensive as they may seem.

The most prevalent misinterpretation is a service dog handler’s refusal of a stranger’s request to pet the dog. A high percentage of people, whose requests are politely declined, take it personally.   Perhaps they think that the handler has singled them out and has deemed them unfit to interact with the dog.  The reality is that most handlers restrict everyone from touching or interacting with the dog. This is done with reason and without bias.

Service dogs understand the difference between “working” mode and “pet dog” mode.  Most service dog handlers prefer to have their dog completely ignore other people. This is because the dog needs to focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be.  Attention from strangers distracts the dog and can put the handler in grave danger!

Drawing the Line
It should go without saying that taunting a service dog or harassing the team is morally wrong.  However, that’s not enough to deter some people from doing so, as does happen.  Fortunately, there are laws to protect handlers from this treatment.  It is a crime to interfere with a service dog team and many handlers won’t hesitate to press charges if an individual’s behavior so warrants it.

Touching a service dog after being asked not to, threatening harm against the dog, feeding the dog without permission and otherwise intentionally distracting the dog interfere with the dog’s job and put the handler in danger.

Another example of abhorrent behavior is a parent encouraging a child to pet a service dog, despite being told not to.  I’ve heard several accounts of handlers overhearing the parents make comments to the children like, “she’s blind so she won’t know if you pet the dog.”  Pathetic.

The Golden Rule
Treat others how you would want to be treated.  This applies to service dog handlers as well.  Understanding the role a service dog plays in the life of his handler and respecting that relationship is the best thing you can do for a service dog handler.  Remember that a service dog handler is human too and deserves just as much consideration as anyone else.

Bradley in vest- artistic