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.