Our ancient ancestors probably never heard of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, but nonetheless, they felt its effects. Once wolves and primitive man began to profit from having a relationship, in addition to practical aspects, there was the feel good factor. Just as sitting with a dog makes a modern human find that life looks a little better than it did before, so it was for primitive man.
The good feelings that wash over us from being with our dogs are available to anyone. But for some of us, it’s not just a matter of feeling better. What can happen when human meets dog can be close to miraculous. For people with invisible disabilities, diseases that are not apparent to the casual observer but are apparent to even the most casual canine, the constant presence of a (service) dog can reduce pain, alert seizures, prevent blood sugar crashes, predict heart attacks, lessen the frequency of exacerbations, re-start immobile limbs and reduce the debilitating symptoms of PTSD, allowing the human partner access to the wider world away from home and offering a richer, fuller life.
But how does one do this smoothly? How can we get through life with a big or little dog always at our sides without hearing, “Get that dog out of here!” Probably, we can’t. But here’s how to hear it less often and here’s what to do when you do hear it.
1. Always have credentials at hand. While the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires no credentials, state and local departments will register service dogs and offer a tag, card or letter attesting to the legitimacy of the dog as a service dog. When confronting a hostile gate keeper, you know, the driver who won’t let you on the bus, the guard who won’t let you into the museum, the person who tells you dogs re not allowed in the building where your doctor has an office, the less you say, the better. First, show your dog’s credentials. If that doesn’t work, politely ask for the supervisor. Often the person trying so hard to keep you from going where you want or need to go is afraid of losing his job for letting a dog in. Credentials will solve most of these problems. Speaking to the supervisor, if necessary, usually solves the rest.
2. Remain calm and rational. The quieter and more confident you are, the more likely it is you will be welcomed in most places. Some people will break the law. Even after seeing credentials, you will sometimes be denied access. You have a choice, then, to shrug and walk away or to call an attorney and pursue the issue. Going the legal route can be long and drawn out so choose these fights carefully, if at all.
3. Dress your dog for the job. True, the ADA does not require your dog to wear a harness, cape or other outfit that designates he is a working dog, but boy oh boy is life easier all around when he does. One of the issues is that your legitimate but undressed service dog, visiting, say, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes other people think they can bring their dogs. Plus, a big plus, things go much faster when your dog looks official. This is not an invitation to take your pet to see some Van Goghs or to ride the bus or join you at a restaurant. With a pet, not only will you not have proper credentials, but you will not be able to answer the questions you might be asked because, in fact, you do not depend on your dog in the way someone with a disability does.
4. Don’t back down. Sad to say, some of the people who will try to deny access to legal service dog partners are angry or unhappy people. I am sad to say this, but I have seen it too many times to not think it’s true. Confronting a disabled person, they think, will be a win win situation for them. They will deny access and then they will feel empowered. But standing up to any kind of bully is important and it almost always works and works easily. If you have a legal dog partner and you are told something ridiculous or untrue (that your dog needs to be in a carrier in order to ride in a taxi, that you need credentials other than what the Dept. of Health sent you, that you need a card saying you are disabled), politely stand your ground. More than likely, the other person will back down.
5. While the law says you are entitled to access on planes, in museums, in grocery stores etc., be grateful all the same. Years ago, this law did not exist. Years ago there were no service dogs and then there were only dogs for the blind. Feeling grateful for the legal recognition of a broader use of dogs to help with disabilities will put you in the right mode when dealing with others. I always thank the bus driver when getting off the bus. I thank everyone who holds a door open for me and tells me where the door is because they see a working dog and think I am blind. I try, in every way I can, to be gracious to the people who are gracious to me and to Sky and to appreciate the enormous change both the law and the dog have brought to my life. I think not only the dog but that feeling also helps my body release the chemicals that make me feel better.
6. Most important – and most obvious – make sure your dog’s manners are impeccable. He should be as unobtrusive as possible whenever you take him where pet dogs are not allowed. He should be able to lie quietly at the side of your chair in a restaurant or doctor’s waiting room, he should walk quietly at your side in a museum, stopping each time you stop to look at a work of art, not needing praise or a treat that would distract others, he should not bark in the movies – even if a dog on screen does, he should be appropriately attentive to you and not solicit or respond to attention from others. He should be clean and groomed and his eyes should shine with intelligence and purpose. He should not make anyone regret having let you into their place of business, office, movie theater, mode of transportation or home. That may seem a lot to ask but most dogs crave a job and quickly understand the rules of engagement for the work they are given.