Please Don't Pet: The Tale of My Service Dog
If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I have a PTSD Service Dog in Training. But besides the fact that she is stinkin' adorable (except for when she ate my Bullet Journal, that was slightly less adorable), you don't know much more about this adventure of ours. We've been playing this one a little closer to the vest. Why? "You don't need a service dog, that makes it harder for people who actually need them."
"You haven't been in war or anything, what do you need a service dog for?"
"Are you sure that's going to help anything? A dog is a big responsibility, you know."
Or the less explicit: "... Really?" And not an interested "Oh really? That's so cool!" More like a "Really? Are you serious?"
This post is going to be a little extra ramble-y and not very well organized, but I'm writing it almost as a defense: a defense against these comments, a defense against comments I expect to get whether I've gotten them yet or not, and--perhaps most importantly--a defense for myself.
"My dog needs some grace to learn... just like I do."
Despite the comments and questions we've gotten, this wasn't a decision we made lightly. There's a lot of work and planning that goes into making sure you legally qualify for a service animal, creating a training plan, choosing and shaping tasks that will actually mitigate your disability.
And not gonna lie, the term "disability" has been a reason in and of itself for me to keep my service dog on the down low... as much as you can keep an adorable puppy in a hot pink vest on the down low, of course. Sometimes labels are great: I actually felt better when I got my PTSD diagnosis. There is something wrong, and something to be fixed. But "disabled" just doesn't stick to my shirt as well.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity." When we finally got Rose and started this process, I was choosing to skip meals rather than go to the grocery store because the anxiety involved with that particular life activity was more than I could take. When it finally had to be done, I would go, sit in the car for up to 45 minutes just getting the nerve to go in, be on edge the entire time, cry when I finally got out, and then be out of juice to do anything else when I got home.
I've lived with anxiety for decades, I've gotten good at riding it out and doing what needs to be done because I'm an adult and have to wear big-girl pants, and when it comes down to it, I hate admitting that that isn't enough anymore.
So while advocating for myself in terms of why I qualify for a service animal and the fact that my dog has access rights when the lady at the gas station tries to tell me my dog can't be in there and stands in our path staring at us does require me to technically wear the "disabled" label, training Rose hasn't been about me being "disabled." It's been about me doing what I need to do to keep being an adult. That just takes a bit more now than it used to.
Meanwhile, it's a significant learning process for everyone involved. I'm learning all kinds of things about dog training and service dogs, and I'm also learning something I didn't think would come with this territory: saying no. "I'm sorry, she's learning how to focus on me right now, so you can't pet her." "She's actually working right now, so no, you can't pet her." "You can't pet her right now, we'll take her vest off later and then you can." Or the one I haven't even been able to pull off yet: "Please stop petting her, she's working." I know she's adorable, and I know I have the power to put a smile on your face by letting you pet her... but that's not her job. Her job is to help me. And dude, you have no idea how hard that boundary is to enforce! And she totally doesn't help, she loves the pets! But they don't help her learn: she has to focus on me. I'm the one teaching her. I'm the one she's working for. For once in my public life, I'm doing something that isn't primarily to help someone else: it's primarily to help me. I've never had to do that before.
And obviously it's a learning process for her! So many commands and cues to learn, and she's still pretty young yet, so her Public Access manners have a way to go. I'm petrified of the day we encounter another service dog team: we're gonna get judged so hard! I've joined a few social media groups, and while the tips are invaluable and they advocate hard for handlers with "invisible disabilities," they also come down HARD on any animal they see in public that "obviously isn't a service animal." And sometimes when they are ranting about how they could "clearly" tell that the other person "just wanted to bring their pet along," I cringe, because Rose lost her focus and did that yesterday. My dog just needs some grace to learn... just like I do.
And it's a learning process for everyone else, too. My therapist didn't know the difference between a therapy animal and a service animal. Most of my friends and family didn't know that Rose has access rights to go anywhere I'm allowed to go... restaurants and hospitals included. And of course, you would not believe how many people don't know to Not. Pet. A. Service. Animal.
The process is still on-going, too. Rose is still working on her manners. I'm still learning how to teach her to help me and then rely on her to do so. We're still training, we're still figuring it out. But you know what? She's something I can work on. There is progress to be made. Whether she is fully trained yet or not, she's keeping me working on things. And right now, when the only place I really want to be is on the couch doing nothing because I'm too sad to move, that's exactly what I need.
My son's angelversary is next month, and grief is a long, hard road on its own. Throw in some anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and this past year has been just about hell. But all year, my prayer has been: "God, I'm doing the best I can, but I can't do any more. Please meet me where I am." And in the midst of twelve months of desert, when it came time to make the decision to purchase Rose, He answered: "This is Me meeting you where you are."
So now I have a dog. Please don't pet: she's working.