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.
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.
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.