I’m a service dog handler. Many of my experiences happen while grocery shopping, from drive-by petting to being forced to engage with someone asking intrusive questions, but they can also happen in any public setting. “Please don’t pet him; he’s working” has become my default greeting when interacting with strangers. People also don’t understand he’s still working when I have to sit down and rest because I don’t feel well.
Every single time we go anywhere in public, someone wants to pet him. I understand, he’s cute, and absolutely adorable in his enthusiasm to be helpful. He’s also working. It would be appalling to interrupt a paramedic helping someone, yet when the paramedic or personal aide has 4 legs and fur, it somehow becomes not only acceptable, but nearly mandatory to interrupt or distract him and ignore my objections. Once, a woman scolded him for breaking a heel to push me into a seat in order to keep me from falling. A man started petting him behind my back while I was looking for the cookies. A woman yelled from outside his alert zone “HI PRETTY PUPPY! I KNOW IM NOT SUPPOSED TO PET YOU…” I was so startled my dog had to do extra tasks to help me refocus on what I was supposed to be doing at that moment, and then only a few moments later, another woman started petting him without asking and didn’t stop when I told her.
I have PTSD. Reaching to pet my dog is reaching into my personal space bubble, and his presence is a passive non-verbal signal to give me extra space. Stop. Do not touch without my express permission. I don’t understand why that’s such a difficult concept for so many. Some say they don’t know when a service dog is working, so here’s a clue: if we’re in a grocery store, restaurant, or other place that is not pet-friendly, he’s working. I haven’t even addressed the questions, yet, and there are so many people with the same tired and tiring questions.
“What’s his name?” Me: “working”. “You don’t have to be rude about it!” My response: yes, actually, I do, because the next thing that was about to happen was a reach to pet that may or may not be accompanied by a request, and my answer is “No!” Don’t try to deny it. Three years of working him in public has taught me what to expect, and he’s busy working at that exact moment. Just because he’s calmly lying there in front of me doesn’t mean he’s off duty. He’s actually multi-tasking by blocking access to me, using his eyes, ears, nose and tail to inform me who’s where and what they’re doing, and likely applying pressure to my foot to help me feel better. I do not want you distracting him, so leave us alone.
“What’s he for?” My honest answer is “to keep you safe from me”, because 1. You have rudely interrupted us, 2. I probably don’t feel well, 3. You may as well have asked me for the results of my last Pap smear, and 4. My first impulse in response is to knock you into next week for your ableist verbal violence in self-defense. He reminds me I don’t want to go to jail today. “I was just trying to be friendly!” No, you weren’t. You invaded my boundaries, likely caused me physical pain, definitely caused me distress, and I neither want nor need your ableist pity in a back-handed gesture of “friendship”. You don’t meet the minimum qualifications to join the ranks of my thousands of friends. I just want you gone from my life so I can continue with my day, until I encounter the next rude person in 3 about minutes.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex