Life with a Service Dog

Moving through life with a service dog often feels like a well-choreographed dance.  Handler and dog execute effortless maneuvers through crowds and tight spaces – often without noticeable direction by voice or signal. Service dogs exude a sense of purpose and they garner much admiration from passersby.

Dogs evolved from wild canines to become domesticated companion animals. Part of their evolutionary process promoted their acute observation of human behavior and the ability to adapt to ever changing environmental cues. Service dogs are not only helpful with every day tasks, they are also great companions – especially in moments when life feels overwhelming due to anxiety, fatigue, pain, or obstacles to easy passage through places of public accommodation.

Have you considered that a service dog might make your life harder?

Service dogs are magnets for attention!  Such attention can become wearing at best, exhausting at its most extreme.

If you have an invisible disability, being out and about with a service dog will make your disabled status visible.

Strangers will stop and ask you questions not only about your dog, but also about why you need him and what he does for you. To them those questions are friendly expressions of curiosity – they probably do not realize they are asking you to divulge information about your very personal, physical and or mental health. Strangers do not stop me on the street to ask me about my wheelchair, but you can be sure I get all kinds of questions about my service dog.

Although many strangers are well meaning, answering questions or fending off invasions of your privacy, will affect your ability to maintain your own pace and flow during an outing. Some people are genuinely interested, some are annoyingly curious, and others are just plain rude.

Many strangers simply love to meet and greet dogs - all dogs. In a single, short errand, you are likely to be stopped several times and asked by a stranger if he or she can pet your dog. Others don’t ask, they just reach out to touch your dog. Some people will even repeatedly pet your dog while reading aloud the dog’s highly visible harness tags that say “Please Don’t Pet Me - I’m Working!”

Strangers may talk baby talk to your service dog trying to invite the dog to pay attention to them, they may even call to the dog, or make smooching noises to attract the dog’s attention. Many people will ask the dog’s name and, if you tell them, they may start conversing with your dog, addressing him repeatedly by his own name - which is extremely distracting for the dog. Some people even become huffy – or belligerent when politely asked not to pet or greet your dog.

There will be times you do not feel up to being polite about telling strangers to keep their hands off your dog! These are difficult moments, especially because every time you are in public with your service dog, you are an ambassador for other disabled handlers and their dogs.

Are you prepared to publicly advocate for your rights?

Access challenges are inevitable. You must be prepared to protect your rights as a disabled person. You will need to know and understand the ADA, FAA, and FHA regulations that apply to service animals, and your rights under those laws.

Family members including spouses and especially teenage children may not appreciate the attention a service dog attracts when you are out with them in public. They may resent the dog’s presence and may not understand why their help isn’t enough for you. They may also be embarrassed (especially teenagers) when they encounter their curious friends. It is important that your family and house mates be on board.

Having a service dog by your side wherever you go can be a wonderful thing. My service dogs are my trusted companions; they provide focus when I am feeling overwhelmed, and assistance when I am too tired to do the simplest things for myself. For me those are huge benefits that well outweigh the challenges. It is, however, important to know just how real the challenges can be, and how they can punctuate your times out in your community. Going about your life with a service dog is a choice: a choice that comes with pleasures, assistance, and lots of responsibilities that require your focus and energy. Attentiveness must go both ways. If you ignore your dog, he is likely to ignore you, or at the very least be distracted by what is happening around him. You must be alert for stray dogs, who might attack and injure your dog, and for the irrepressible people who will want your dog’s attention on them.

While service dogs can be a huge help and a lot of fun, they also have their own needs. If you are out doing a string of errands or have back-to-back doctors’ appointments, you’ll need to factor in time for your dog to go potty – even when it is pouring rain or freezing cold outside. If it is hot out, remember you can’t leave your dog to chill out in a hot car! Don’t forget to carry a water bowl for your dog and offer him frequent opportunities to have a drink. On an especially long day, you may even have to factor in time to pause for some doggy-downtime. Time for you and your dog to play and relax, with all your focus devoted to your hard working dog.


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Contact Barbara by email: Barbara Handelman or by telephone 802-649-5213  •  Norwich, Vermont