Sometimes it seems as if the cheaters are flying all over the map with their fake service dogs and those of us with legitimate service dogs are being denied access. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to be a liar than it is to be disabled. If your disability is exacerbated by stress, just the stress of travel alone can put you in a bad place, a dangerous place. Too many what ifs. Too many issues. Too many things to manage, the leash, the rolling bag, the backpack, your passport, ticket and driver’s license. And, then, the questions.
Here’s what I learned and it applies to flying with a service dog as well as access to commercial buildings, hospitals, restaurants, cabs, long distance trains, schools, the place where you work, your apartment etc. (Below: Sky looking out the plane window on our flight home from Alaska.)
- Make sure people can see your dog is a service dog by using a vest (yes, anyone can buy them on line but that doesn’t mean real service dogs don’t wear them) with one patch – or, at most, one patch on each side. Do not (can I repeat that? yes, I can) do not load the dog’s vest with information that no one will read and which will make it appear that the lady or gentleman (that would be you) doth protest too much.
- If the municipality where you live registers service dogs, do whatever they ask to register your dog. This will give you a letter, a card (not the one you buy on line PLEASE) or, as in our case, a brass tag.
- Pay careful attention now. THE LESS YOU SPEAK, THE BETTER. If your disability exacerbates with stress, and whose doesn’t when you think about it, you do not want to argue with anyone ever. When asked if your dog is a service dog, show your letter, card (only a real one) or tag without saying a word. Want more “speak no evil,” as it were? Good. Get a letter from your doctor – not the kind you pay for from a doctor who has never seen you and says you need an emotional support dog, but a real letter from your real doctor. Keep a copy of the letter in a plastic bag in your dog’s vest and use when necessary in lieu of arguing.
- Goes without saying but when did that ever stop me! Your dog’s manners and your manners as a service dog partner should be impeccable. (Translation: better than perfect.) It’s not about your dog. It’s about your disability and the help your canine partner offers you every hour of every day. Yes, the law gives you the right (the dog has no rights) to be places with your service dog where pet dogs can’t tread, but be grateful anyway. Be polite. Thank the flight attendant who made sure you were seated in bulkhead. Thank the person who holds the door for you. Tell the lifeguard at the gym where you swim how grateful you are that he makes sure no one pets your dog while you are swimming. Thank the cab driver who picks you up after five others speed by and if you can, thank him also with a little bigger tip (not necessary, but nice.)
- Okay, in the weird but true category. You love your dog and just like everyone with a pet, you love to take pictures of your dog even though your dog is a working service dog. You even like to take pictures of your dog where other dogs are not allowed. Fine. This is America. If the guard in the museum doesn’t mind, have your fun. But…
- don’t take pictures where it might undermine the serious purpose of having your service dog with you in the eyes of others. I rarely if ever take pictures in restaurants. I shoo my dog under the table or have her lie quietly next to my chair. A restaurant is not a great place to make a fuss over your dog. It, like other places you get to go, is a place where the dog should be unobtrusive. The ability of your dog to be unobtrusive is, in fact, one of the ways he will appear to be what he is – a real service dog. (The guard at the Musee Picasso fell in love with Flash – see above – and even asked us to write down his breed. The gallery where the sculpture was was nearly empty and so, with the guard looking on with stars in his eyes, we took a few fun pictures.)
- When you answer questions, be prepared for them to never end. This I learned the hard way. And, yes, I still do talk to some people about what my dog does, but it’s a judgment call. When some people ask the first nosy question and you answer it – she helps me with a disability (the proper answer by law) – there’s a follow up, or three or eight. What disability? What does she do? How does she do that? When it’s nosy/friendly, it’s up to you. When it’s official, show your letter or tag, and if need be, your doctor’s note.
- KNOW THE LAW. The law if your protection. Read it. Print it if you like. Stay within it. Use the correct terminology. Tune-up your dog’s training from time to time. Take superb care of your “medical equipment,” a balanced life of work and play, of time to rest and lots of love.