Monthly Archives: April 2014


Peeking: Negotiating Public Restrooms

People that aren’t used to the concept of service dogs don’t often completely understand that the service dog/handler team is together everywhere, at all times, in all situations. They are never separated.  So, I have been in a restaurant or cafe with an acquaintance, and said, “I’ll be right back – I need to go use the restroom.” And the person will hold out his or her hand, offering to take my dog’s leash. No, that’s not the way it works. Service dogs go to the bathroom, too.

There are two different categories of challenges I have run into when negotiating the world of public restrooms as part of a service dog team: the actual physical facts of the entry and exit, and the interactions with people. Each can be either flummoxing or amusing, depending on the situation.

First, there is the physical part. When I first began training Ripley, I read in one of my service dog manuals that I should never use a handicapped stall, unless I myself was in a wheelchair and needed the special access. Since that was not the case, I wanted to honor that directive, and during our initial forays into public restrooms, I steadfastly avoided the larger stalls, heading for the regular, smaller ones. I soon found myself in a number of humorous situations. One night, I went to see a play at a local theater. The bathroom had two stalls, and there was a line of people waiting to use them. When it was my turn, Ripley and I headed for one of the doors. We managed to get inside, but then found that the stall was so small, that when the door was closed, my knees were almost touching it by the time I could sit down. Poor Ripley was squeezed in a narrow space wrapped around the toilet, her head up over my lap. It was impossible to even get to the toilet paper without reaching around her belly. I was almost hysterical (with giggles) by the time we finished our business. I found out later that the theater does have a separate, unisex one-room bathroom, and that’s what we use now when we go to see plays.

Too often, restroom doors swing in instead of out. That’s fine for a person to step into the stall, but when a dog also has to walk into the narrow space, and then you both have to turn around and reposition before you can close the door, again, it can get quite comical.

One other factor in the equation is that I am often carrying two bags. Part of my disability is that I cannot drive, so I do not have the luxury many folks have of using my car as a storage unit. I’m constantly schlepping my life around with me when I’m out in public. I have my messenger bag, with my books, notepad, etc., and sometimes a camera bag, and then I have Ripley’s bag, a small duffel that I use to carry all of the things I’ll need for her if we’re going to be out on the town all day – water bottle, collapsible dog bowl, small blanket, treat bag, extra poop bags. Some restrooms do have a hook to hang a bag on, but they are generally designed for a purse. And in a small stall, if I hang my two bags on a hook, and then have Ripley sitting in front of me, once again, I barely have room, and we’re like the proverbial sardines in a can.

Luckily, many of the newer buildings have generously sized stalls, so even the non-handicapped spaces are wider, and it is less of an issue. But, needless to say, I now check out the space when I enter, and if it looks like a tight squeeze – Ripley and I head for the handicapped stall. It’s just not worth the anguish. Of course, if there were ever anyone needing that stall, I would allow them first priority. But in an empty bathroom – I figure, my disability and special needs count, too.

Oh, and don’t even ask me about Port-a-Potties. Gaw.

The Pink Nose

The Pink Nose

OK, now the second issue. The people. Here’s what happens. We’re in our stall, and I’m doing my business, and then I hear, “Oh!” Oops. Ripley is peeking again. If there’s a stall next to ours with someone in it, and she hears a sound, she’ll poke her nose under, just to check it out. And the woman is, of course, surprised. Usually it’s not a bad thing. They think it’s cute. Or, I’ll hear a child out in the waiting area say, “Mom, there’s a dog in there.” They have a lower line of vision, and are looking down, and they notice her paws under the door. So when we come out, I have a whole line of women and children beaming at me.

This is positive, for the most part. But people want to chat, and sometimes pet, and ask questions. Sometimes they want to talk to me while I’m in the stall. And I’m going to the bathroom. I’m at the theater, trying to get back to my seat before the second act. Or returning to a friend waiting for me. And sometimes, sometimes, I think, “Can I just pee like everybody else?”

These are the moments when it is very clear that a service dog is not just a tool. Ripley is my ally, my assistant, my right hand. But she is also an adorable yellow lab with a pink nose. People melt when they see dogs. They get all gooey. They want to tell me about their dogs, or the dog they used to have, or the dog they had that just passed away. And all of that is really sweet, but I’m just trying to go to the bathroom, and wash my hands. Or sometimes someone will start the whole, “What does she do for you?” discussion, in the bathroom. And really, I don’t mind educating the public, it comes with the territory – but could we not do it in the bathroom?

I guess I’m old fashioned. I think it’s weird when people talk on their cell phones in public restrooms, too. And when people have conversations from one stall to the next.

Just Waiting

Just Waiting

But – I do have to confess. I  talk to Ripley. As we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to fit into yet another small box, and find a place for our bags, and get the door closed. I do talk to her. Maybe I’m the crazy one.


Service Dogs Vs. Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Being out in the public with a service dog, I am constantly asked questions. Over the past few weeks, one question has dominated: Is that a therapy dog? Where can I go to get my dog trained as a therapy dog?

There appears to be a great deal of confusion among the general population about the different types of service dogs, and what their roles, responsibilities, and privileges are. For example, most of these “Is that a therapy dog?” questions have come when I have been in a retail setting, like a grocery store or drug store. Therapy dogs would not be in such a setting with their vests on. And although some people seem to understand, basically, what a therapy dog does (provide assistance and comfort in a more clinical setting), others believe that a therapy dog will be for them – to give emotional support to the handler.

So, in the hopes of clearing up some of the mystery behind all of this, I am going to lay out the basic definitions of the three categories of dogs who help people: emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs.

Emotional support dogs fall into the most common (and least understood) category. To qualify to get an emotional support dog, all that is required is a letter from your doctor or psychiatrist saying that a dog would be beneficial to you as an emotional support animal. You are not required to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So this is something that is available to anyone – an elderly person who simply needs extra comfort, for example. However, the privileges of an emotional support dog are extremely limited. They are only allowed two things:

  • to live in an apartment or other rental unit where otherwise dogs would not be permitted, and
  • to fly on an airplane with their person.

That’s it. Emotional support dogs are not allowed entry into restaurants, stores, etc. You are not given permission to bring your chihuahua in your cart in the grocery store. Emotional support dogs are not required to wear vests, although some identification may be helpful when flying. (Paperwork is always important when dealing with airlines.) And, depending on the airline, you may find some difficulty, as some have more rigorous guidelines.

Therapy dogs are dogs who are specifically trained to give affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools. They often work with people with learning disabilities or those in stressful situations, like a courtroom, or a disaster area. They can come in all sizes and breeds. The most important thing about them is their temperament – they must be friendly, gently, and patient. A therapy dog will be petted constantly, and may have children climbing on top of him or her, or the dog may be asked to jump up onto a patient’s bed. So the dog must be very confident, and comfortable with lots of contact.

They are allowed to go into settings such as schools and hospitals, libraries and daycare centers, rest homes and courtrooms, to perform their duties. However, they do not have the rights of a service dog. Just because they own a vest, it does not mean they can go into restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores or concerts. The handler is not disabled, so those privileges are not extended to the therapy dog/handler team. The therapy dog is only allowed access rights when she/he is  performing her/his duty — at the school, nursing home, office, etc.

A therapy dog should wear a vest that clearly says “therapy dog,” not “service dog.” And the vest should be removed when the dog is not on the job.

There is no one standard for training a therapy dog. However, many organizations who use therapy dogs provide training, to help get your dog ready to become one of their volunteers. I have added a page in my resource section with listings of organizations that provide training in the Northern California Area.

Service dogs have the most privileges, and, correspondingly, the highest level of responsibility. In order to use a service dog, the handler must have a disability, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Go to Sec. 12102. Definition of disability for a complete listing.) Although technically there are no laws stating this, it is highly recommended that the handler have a letter from his or her doctor stating that a service dog is required because of the person’s disability. I have such a letter, and carry a copy of it in Ripley’s vest at all times.

The most important difference between a service dog and the other categories of dogs is that a service dog has a task or tasks. Legally, a business owner can ask you only one question: What does your service dog do? And “My dog comforts me” is not an adequate answer. You must be able to say something like, “My dog picks up objects,” or “My dog opens doors,” or “My dog reminds me when to take my medications,” or “My dog is an alert-and-assist dog for seizures,” or “My dog notifies me when my blood sugar is low,” or “My dog helps me to stabilize my balance,” or “My dog responds to my PTSD symptoms.” There are many, many different tasks a dog can do – but a bona fide service dog is a working dog, and has a job.

Service dogs also are not required to wear vests, but it makes their work much easier, for simple identification in the eyes of the public. Having an ID card can also ease access, so registration with a service dog organization is a good idea. The most recognized one, and the one I use, is USAR Plus. That way, I have an ID card with our pictures to show in case anyone ever asks. And they do ask sometimes.

A working service dog/handler team has the right to access to any place the public has access to — the only limitations are private homes, and some places in the public arena that may be inappropriate for safety reasons, such as sterile areas in a hospital or rooms where x-rays or other imaging equipment is being used  (most areas in a hospital are OK), some construction sites, etc.

OK — whew. Hopefully that makes all of this a little less murky and a tad more understandable. Onward to the next public encounter!

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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