Juggling Service Dog, Friends, Family and Public Relationships

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The process of getting a service dog is made vastly easier and smoother by the support of family and friends, but their relationship with your service dog can be complicated. Most people see a service dog as still a pet, and it’s important to set clear boundaries for your friends and family to follow in order to ensure your safety and the peace of your household.

First, decide whether you want the public to be able to pet and interact with your service dog. When I first got Rally, I used to let everyone pet him, but as I have grown accustomed to Rally’s presence and indifferent to the smiles and stares, I have become more selective, only allowing people to touch Rally if I am not busy and if he won’t be distracted. A friend of mine has a different approach, requiring a “no touch, no eye contact” rule. It just depends on the handler, the dog’s job, and the situation at hand. Whatever you decide, stick with it.

Once you know what your rule is on public interactions, it’s time to decide how you would like your friends and family to act around your service dog. This can be tricky; most likely you will be spending more time interacting with your friends and family members, and they will want to hug and pet your dog; it’s up to you to decide if that will be distracting and wearisome for both you and your dog. Be clear and set firm rules in a gentle tone.

I personally have two sets of rules for my family to interact with Rally; one for home, the other for public. The home set of rules are more relaxed and enable my parents and sister to feel that Rally is a member of the family.  They can pet and play with him, and treat him like a regular dog.

However, once we exit the front door and Rally’s vest comes on, the public rules kick into gear. Now Rally is off limits. No touching or talking to him. My Mum especially has trouble with this rule; she adores Rally and loves to stroke his ears and scratch his head, which is fine in private, but in public, especially when I have a “no touch” rule for bystanders, it can undermine Rally’s status as a service dog and distract him from his work.

You might find that while your friends and family love to pet and praise your dog in the privacy of their own homes, they are uncomfortable with you bringing your service dog everywhere with you. My parents don’t understand much about service access laws, and aren’t used to walking calmly into a restaurant with a dog leashed to their hip, so sometimes they suggest ideas or give advice that seems right to them but is impractical or wrong for me. My parents will suggest that I leave Rally at home if we are going to the movie theaters, or they become flustered when I walk towards the elevator at the shopping mall. They think the “do not pet” patch on the back of his vest is mean, and scowl when I deny someone their request to interact with Rally. They don’t understand my frustrations or applause at certain public access laws, nor do they fully comprehend how exhausting it can be to always have a dog with you.

The bottom line is know your service dog, know your limitations, and know your rules. You alone know what is best for your dog. If you require a corner seat at a restaurant, request it. If you know your dog can sit through a two hour movie with gunshots and car crashes, then go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do with your service dog. Be confident, set the rules, and lead the way. Your friends and family will follow.

Asking Questions About Service Dogs

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I love my dog. I will happily talk about Rally and discuss his latest achievements and accomplishments with a tree stump. I’m not sure how my boyfriend can still sit in the car and nod and smile and listen without bailing when I discuss the latest service dog laws or rage at social injustice. I know I’d jump out of the moving car window or hum very loudly if someone talked about a subject as often as I talk about Rally, but that’s what happens when your health depends on something; you get obsessed.

As a handler, I receive tons of questions every single day about Rally from curious bystanders, from what breed he is to his function in my life. This gives me the opportunity to educate people about service dogs, explain their various tasks and purposes, and outline some of the service dog laws. However, there are some questions that should not be asked, especially not to a service dog handler.

“What’s wrong with you?” is my least favorite question. Every single person who legally and honestly has a service animal is disabled in some shape, way or form. That’s why they need a service animal. Often, the reasons are medical and deeply personal. They involve painful memories and intense emotions. By answering the question, “what’s wrong with you?” the handler exposes a part of themselves that is private, and absolutely none of the stranger’s business. As a handler, when I get asked, “what’s wrong with you?”, I have to fight to remain calm and polite. Even now, as I write, I must fight the urge to rant and rave, but then that would be unprofessional and biased, and my goal of writing this is to educate people on what not to ask and what to ask handlers. So, “what’s wrong with you?” is off the table as rude and prying.  Instead, first scan the dog’s vest for clues. “Hearing Aid”, “Medical Alert” or “See Eye Dog” patches could answer your questions in a more discrete way. Also, keep an eye out for patches that read “do not pet” or “ask to pet”, as these mean very different things and will give a clue as how the handler will react when you ask if you can pet their service dog.

“You have such a well trained dog,” is always a pleasant interlude into a sentence, but when followed quickly by, “I wish my dog could go everywhere with me too,” it can become an irritating nightmare. So you wish that your dog could go into movie theaters and shopping malls and grocery stores with you too? So you wish that you were just like me and had a disability? So you wish that you were disabled? It’s not a good conversation to have, and it makes handlers very uncomfortable, so be safe and stop the sentence after, “you have such a well trained dog”.

Just as there are some questions that should never be voiced, there are some very important questions to ask yourself and the handler before approaching a service team. First, ask yourself, “Is this a good time to approach the team?” They might be in the middle of a task, or they might look exhausted, or they might be blissfully decompressing with a cup of coffee after a long day at work. Even if they look relaxed and unoccupied, remember to approach calmly and make eye contact. If they don’t smile back or look interested, then just nod politely and move on. Always wait for the handler to initiate conversation or greeting.

If you would like to interact with the dog, another important question to ask the handler is, “may I pet your dog?”  Do not be annoyed or taken aback if your request is gently denied. But, if you ask politely, most handlers will allow you to briefly pet their dog.

Once you and the handler are having a conversation, it is up to your discretion to voice any further questions that you might have, such as “where was your dog trained?” and “how long did the training take?” or any other such questions. Personally, if I’m not in a hurry, I’ll take the time to answer any questions that are asked in a polite, respectful manner, even ones about the cost of training Rally. Also keep in mind that while meeting a service dog might be a huge event in your day, the handler probably faces dozens of questions a day concerning their dog, so if they are short or brief with you, don’t take it personally.

The most important thing to remember when interacting with service dog teams, is that they are humans, so be polite and respectful, and you and the handler will have a rewarding experience. So, the next time you see a team, scan the dog’s vest, ascertain if it would be appropriate for you to interact with the pair, and enrich both your life and the team’s.

Why We Ask “Do Not Pet”

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Whether walking down the isle of the supermarket or navigating the neighborhood shopping mall, waiting in line at the airport or sitting at a table in a restaurant, I am always amazed and humbled by the powerful, positive effect that Rally has on almost everyone we meet. Upon first glimpse of a dog in their midst, folks straighten and smile, and I can see their stress and worries lifting from their shoulders. With the exception of a few, the vast majority of people love Rally at first sight, and they usually try and make eye contact, grinning and edging casually forwards to pet him.

I admit it; no dog looks cuter or sweeter or softer than Rally-but then I am a bit biased. The point is, that I understand completely the urge to pet a dog that overcomes most human beings. I understand and I agree that in any other situation, when I see a dog-in particularly one in a foreign environment, behaving so well in public-I would want to rush over and shower hugs and love upon that pooch. Unfortunately, as a service dog handler, I refuse the pleas to pet more often than I give permission, and I wanted a chance to explain why without appearing to be whining, domineering or controlling.

It’s not that I’m selfishly hoarding my dog’s fluffy cuteness all to myself, and it’s not that I don’t enjoy the smiles and ahhs of appreciation and admiration; after all, training a service dog to heel politely at your side and ride an escalator without hesitation isn’t an easy task, and I’m very appreciative and filled with glee when someone notices the hours of training and effort that goes into creating a service dog. However, one reason that I refrain folks from petting Rally is because, for all their training, service dogs are dogs. They aren’t machines that can ignore all distractions, and nor are they humans with the intelligence to multitask. If someone wants to pet Rally, he knows to keep his attention focused on me, but if they have a pet cat at home, or have recently waded through some tasty smells, I can literally see the effort that it takes Rally to keep his eyes on me. If he’s distracted, or only half paying attention to me, I’m in trouble.

Take someone with diabetes. Their dog is tasked with alerting them to the rises and falls of their blood sugar levels. Then, kind person wants to pet their dog, and the handler permits it. The dog is trained to keep focused, but the temptation of a scratch behind the ears and the ensuing conversation distracts his attention, and the handler’s blood sugar dips. The dog doesn’t catch the danger, and the handler is now vulnerable. Similarly, if someone has a mobility assist service dog who helps them up stairs, and is distracted-even momentarily-by someone making kissy noises, the dog can pull or hesitate, and the handler can fall or hurt themselves.  It’s not that people mean harm to the handlers, and intentionally distract the dogs; it’s just that they don’t understand how handlers view their dogs.

Rally is not a pet. I don’t even really think of him as a dog.  He’s a medical device that I use to navigate the world. He’s my pair of glasses, my wheelchair, a blood pressure cuff. When I look at Rally, I  do notice the sweet, floppy ears and soft, brown eyes, but I also see a way for me to drive my car and go grocery shopping without fear of a migraine attack. So, when people come up, asking to pet Rally, I don’t see what they see; a cute, sweet pet that’s conveniently wandered across their path. I see a possibility that Rally might become distracted and miss one of my migraines, resulting in a hospital trip and hours of agony. So, I gently say, “I’m sorry, he’s working”, and walk on past.

Another reason I have for denying people their request to pet and interact with Rally is that while it can be reinvigorating and rejuvenating for them to scratch Rally behind the ears and ask me questions about him, it can be exhausting and draining for me. Now, don’t get me wrong; I love to talk about Rally. He’s the focus of my life, and sometimes I wonder how my boyfriend can listen to me day in and day out as I discuss Rally’s training, Rally’s behavior, Rally’s triumph and Rally’s sighs, but somehow, bless him, he does.  However, handlers receive tons and tons of attention every single minute of every single day that they are in public with their service animal. People stare. People turn around and look. And that’s fine. Dogs are a rarity in public places, as they should be, and people are curious. But, when the handler is in a hurry, has already answered five or six questions to separate strangers five minutes earlier, and wants nothing more than to grab a box of Fruit Roll-Ups and escape home, the attention can be tiresome.

So, when you make eye contact with me and smile eagerly, inching forwards and dying to pet Rally, don’t be insulted or annoyed if I just smile back and walk past. It’s not that I hate humans or don’t want to answer your questions; I just want Rally to remain focused on his job and I just want to go about my life as normally as possible.

 

 

 

Riding Amtrak With Rally!

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After traveling with a service dog aboard a plane, car, bus and boat, I approached Rally and my six hour train ride from Reno NV to Martinez CA with little trepidation. Certainly, six hours was a long time for us to be sitting still, but at least the train had an observation deck that we could visit, and the dinning car was open for lunch. I packed Rally’s usual travel bag; food, a few bully sticks for him to chew on, his brown rug to lie upon, an extra leash and his vaccination papers. The evening before our trip, I refrained from giving Rally more than a few sips of water; although the train did make a brief stop on Sacramento, I didn’t want to be fighting embarking passengers onand off the platform in search of something green and tall that Rally would grace with his pee. I also called Amtrak, and let them know I would be traveling with a service animal; they were very courteous and asked all of the right questions before assuring me that the staff would be ready to assist me.

The next day, Alex and I drove to the Amtrak train station. It was still early, and Rally was intrigued by the noise and smells that surrounded us. We entered the building, descended down the elevator (much to the awe of the elderly couple who shared the space with us) and settled into chairs to await my train. Rally lay down at my feet, content to watch the hustle and bustle beyond the windows.

Neither Alex or I had eaten breakfast, expecting the train to arrive on time and figuring that we wouldn’t have any time to grab a bite on the way to the station (I have a chronic fear of being late) but as time passed and the announcer proclaimed the train would be late, I began to wish we had snagged a coffee or a doughnut on the way. Hearing my grumbling stomach, Alex hastily left, returning with a sandwich and a water, which we devoured. Rally nibbled on a bone and contemplated his toenails.

Eventually the train rumbled along. It was nearly two hours late, but Rally only gave a heartfelt sigh and heaved himself to his feet, following me outside to the tracks. Alex and I said goodbye, and I was helped up the stairs into the train. The stairs leading up to the top layer of the train were tiny, scarcely wide enough for one’s shoulders, so Rally followed at my heels as we climbed to our car. I quickly found a bulkhead seat with ample legroom, and lay out Rally’s bed. He flopped down with a long-suffering sigh, oblivious to the other passengers as they boarded behind us.  I took off his vest and harness so that he could relax better, and he immediately went to sleep.

The train took off laboriously, and Rally and I settled in for the six hour trip ahead of us. Fortunately, I was well prepared, having been to the bookstore the day before and purchased four sturdy tombs, so the first four hours passed in bliss. The dinning car opened for lunch, and after putting his vest back on, Rally and I lurched and stumbled our way down the length of the train to the compartment. The poor waiter had never encountered a service team before, but he saved the day with a smile and a nearby table. Rally went under the table and I ordered a microwaved hamburger, a soda and a packaged cookie. I watched the beautiful mountain landscape crawl by outside the window, and admired the crispness of the snow against the thorny rock face. There were patches of wildflowers blooming on the cliffside, tall rigid pines and spidery swaying ferns basking in the sunshine. Spring was certainly advancing on winter’s heels.

After eating, Rally and I headed back to our seats, where we resumed reading and gnawing on a bone. As we descended the snowy mountains and chugged along the rolling farmlands of California, Rally became interested and sat at my feet, staring out at the scenery. Suddenly, with a whoosh and a blur of speed, another train roared past us. Rally leapt to his feet, eyes bugging out. Clearly he thought the train was about to collide with ours! I reassured him and led him back to the window. it’s important-especially for service dogs who cannot afford to be afraid of anything-that if something scares them, the dog is returned immediately to the site and taught that whatever it is that frightened them cannot actually harm them (be it a passing train, a nearby car backfiring, or just crossing a bridge).  Rally flinched as another train passed, but when I yawned and went back to my book, he tentatively resumed his post at the window. By the time the fourth train zoomed past, Rally had lost all interest and fear. In fact, he looked a little embarrassed as he lay back down across my sneakers.

We arrived in Martinez around four PM, and my dad was waiting to pick us up. He was driving his red convertible Mustang, and Rally was immensely thrilled when Dad lowered the roof. The entire trip back home, his tongue hung out, ears flung back against his skull, eyes slitted against the wind. We were both glad that the long trip was over, but it had been a pleasant adventure, and I looked forwards to our return train ride.

 

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