We received a package in the mail this week – a new service vest for Ripley. Now, her old service vest is still in great shape, despite being about three years old. It is sturdily made, wears well, and all it needs is an occasional washing to make it look sparkly again. So why invest in new clothes?
It’s about the message. When I chose the patches for the old vest, it was my first time outfitting a service dog. I had no experience being out in public as a handler, and definitely no clue what that was going to be like. Suffice it to say, I was ill prepared for the overwhelming amount of attention I found myself suddenly receiving. Everywhere we went, people wanted to say hello. Even though many folks have some clue that you’re supposed to be a bit reserved with service dogs, they simply can’t resist. Ripley’s small stature, the fact that she’s a yellow lab vs. a black lab or another breed of dog, and, on top of all that, she has a pink nose – god! People just can’t contain themselves! Then there’s the fascination with me. Because they can’t figure out what my disability is, since it’s not inherently obvious, they want to chat about that, in one way or another. Is this my dog? Am I a trainer? What does she do? Etc.
Ripley’s old vest has three patches – one on the top (on her back) and one on each side. On her right side is a white patch with her name. We duplicated that on the new vest. On the top on the old vest is a white patch with a caduceus symbol, over the words “Medical Alert Dog.” When Ripley and I first began working together, this seemed like a logical choice, because I believed what I was suffering from, primarily, was a seizure disorder. They have “seizure dog” patches, but that seemed sort of personal; I wasn’t sure I wanted to give out that much information. So I opted for this patch instead. Little did I know what it would bode for me…an unending stream of questions. Because people don’t know what “medical alert dog” means. When they see the patch, it is an open invitation for inquiry.
I don’t mind answering questions about service dogs and what they do. I love my relationship with Ripley, and I love talking to people about all the wonderful things that are part of the lives of service dog/handler teams. But I like to be able to choose those moments. When it’s impossible to even grab a quick item at the grocery store, or walk through the lobby of the theater during intermission to go use the bathroom, because you are stopped by half a dozen people wanting to ask whether your dog can detect cancer, or if it goes to hospitals to visit sick kids, it can get frustrating.
On the old vest, the patch on the left said said, “Working: Please Ask Before Petting.” This felt perfect to me when I was first starting out. I figured that way people would respect our space, but could still say hello, within reason. Again, I wasn’t prepared for how often I would have to deal with this. When we are out in public, we are inundated with requests for greetings. At a large event, people are reaching out for Ripley one after another. It makes it absolutely impossible for her to focus on her job. It’s very difficult for me, because when I try to stand up for her, and set limits, it makes me feel rude. Which is crazy, I know, because she’s a service dog, and I shouldn’t have to feel bad about asking people not to distract her from her job. But I do.
So we decided, let’s try an experiment. What about a new vest, with different patches, sending stronger messages? Maybe that will help the people we run into see that there is a boundary here. For the top patch, to eliminate that “what does it mean?” problem, I chose a symbol of a dog with the words “Working Dog: Do Not Disturb.” There is no longer the confusing medical symbol, no “medical alert dog” status. And there is the added language right there in plain view on top asking people not to distract Ripley because she’s on the job.
For the left side, I selected something bold and hard to miss – a red patch in the shape of a stop sign. It reads “STOP” in big white letters, then “Please Do Not Pet. I’m Working.” This retains some of that friendliness, by using the first person as if the dog is speaking, but still sets a clear, strong limit, saying, hey, I’ve got responsibilities.
Have to say, it’s a beautiful vest. Brand spanking new, the fabric almost stiff, the whites practically glowing. And I love the look of the new patches. But will they work, in the way I hope? May be wishful thinking. I might just have to step in and assist, learning how to stand up for those boundaries with or without red stop signs.