Service Dogs Welcome

Service Dog sign

Service Dog sign

I’m not sure what triggered the sudden appearance of these signs at all of the Starbucks stores, but they are now posted on bulletin boards everywhere – and it’s a nice feeling to have a big welcome when I go in to buy my coffee. Not only a welcome, but an explanation of what a service dog is. Thanks, Starbucks.


Ripley Meets a Yeti

(This post is especially for Andrew Wing. He’s one of Ripley’s biggest fans and readers, and we feel terrible that we haven’t written in over a month. So we wanted you to know, Andrew, that we’re sorry, and we’ll try to be better in the future. Ripley would give you a big wet kiss if she could.)

As a service dog, Ripley attends the theater frequently. She has been to performances at 6th Street Playhouse, the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, Raven Theater, and productions at Calistoga and Cloverdale high schools. So she’s become pretty nonchalant about human beings acting a little bit crazy.

Her first night out was at Calistoga High, and in one of the three plays, “Words, Words, Words,” the kids were three chimpanzees named Kafka, Milton and Swift. The premise is that they are in a cage, with typewriters. A scientist has a theory that if they randomly hit keys, eventually they’ll come up with “Hamlet.”  Great play — but Ripley got a bit startled when the “chimpanzees” started screeching and rolling around all over the stage, throwing paper and typewriters around. What were these humans doing?

Soon, though, she came to realize that anything goes at the theater. I bring her blanket, lay it down on the floor at my feet, and she settles in for the duration of the show. Gunshots, hollering, people breaking out into song and dance, lights dazzling across the room, all became part of a regular routine. She waits patiently for the applause, then gets up, stretches, and knows it’s time either for intermission or to go home.

That is, until this last theater experience. In early March, we went to see the Raven Theater’s production of “On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning.” The story is about three women explorers in the late 1800s who head out to Terra Incognita,  “lady travelers” who face all kinds of challenges and end up moving not only through space, but through time.

When we arrived at the theater, in the recently renovated space in Windsor, we discovered that the stage was set for theater in the round, meaning that the audience sits on all sides of the action. We chose a seat on the side, right on the floor of the stage. There was a space next to me with no chair, so I spread Ripley’s blanket there, thinking it gave her some protection from the main event.

When our intrepid explorers appeared, Mary (Christi Calson, a good friend), Fanny (Elizabeth Henry) and Alex (Sarah Bird Passemar), my first thought was, “Gaw! I hope Ripley doesn’t walk out onto the stage to say hi to Christi!” But no, she seemed to understand perfectly that this was theater, and greetings were for later.

It soon became clear we were in for some close encounters. The women, armed with machetes, spent a good deal of time walking in circles bushwhacking. Ripley seemed not to mind having the long rubber knives swinging down quite close to her nose. So far, so good. Then, in response to – what was it, a crocodile? the good ladies pulled out their trusty umbrellas. Standing in a circle in the center, they pumped their umbrellas open and closed, repeatedly, to scare off the beast. I placed my hand on Ripley, just to make sure. Again, she seemed remarkably relaxed, despite the proximity of the whooshing weapons.

There was one other cast member in the play, Steve Thorpe, who played a total of eight parts. You never knew what he’d show up as next. Just as all was getting rather comfortable, out came Thorpe from the back stage entrance as an abominable snowman. Simultaneously with his appearance, he launched a snowball – which sailed across the stage, and popped Ripley right in the behind. The whole audience gasped. She stood up, shook it off, turned around, and laid back down, as if to say, “Really? Snowballs?”

The snowballs were very light styrofoam, nothing that could cause harm, only startling. The actors continued without missing a beat, the yeti throwing his snowballs, Mary, Alex and Fanny getting into the fight, and we moved on to the next scene.

During intermission, people from the audience came up repeatedly to comment on the fact that Ripley had been so calm about the whole incident. They were simply amazed. Still, for Act II, we moved up one set of seats, so we weren’t quite so close to the action.

Following the show, our yeti, Thorpe, came up to apologize. Hey, it’s all in a night’s work for a service dog. Sometimes you help your human. Sometimes you meet the abominable snowman. Part of the job, Ripley seemed to say. On with the show.


Little Dogs, Big Problem

I know you’ve seen them. The little dogs, tucked under the arms of their owner, or nestled in grocery carts, or with their heads popping out of a shoulder bag. Little dog owners seem to think that because their pets are small and easily transportable, they can go anywhere – into restaurants, food stores, health clinics, you name it. Although cute and tiny, those little dogs can be deceiving. Far too often, they are undisciplined and  out of control. Which leads to trouble for me.

Here are a couple of examples.

I went to Office Depot for a quick dash in-and-out, intent on picking up three items. Ripley and I entered the store, grabbed a hand basket, and walked up the main aisle. As we readied to turn towards our first destination, a man appeared pushing a cart. All of a sudden, there was a cacophany of yips and yapping. Yes, there she was. A little dog in the front seat of the cart, going crazy at the sight of Ripley. The man greeted us, and shushed his dog.

We headed down the pen aisle, picked up my favorite writing tools, then turned at the end, and entered the parallel aisle with envelopes. A woman stood next to me, puzzling over her selection. As I stood trying to decide which box to buy, we were assailed once again with a barrage of barking. The poor woman at my side was so startled she cried out. The owner of our charming little barker said, “Now, Princess, you’ve seen that dog before. You mustn’t bark.” The dog, of course, with that stern talking to, continued unabated.

Ripley and I had one more item to search out, and met up with the unwelcome couple one more time, again assaulted with a earful of dog yaps and snarls. Throughout all of this, Ripley made not a peep, simply stood at my side, wondering what all the hullaboo was about.

On another recent afternoon, the two of us went shopping at a fair trade store in Sebastopol. The store is not very big, and has fairly narrow walking paths throughout. As we stepped in, a woman with a little dog on a retractable leash saw us enter. She gave us the stink eye, and scooped up her precious Fifi, seeming to indicate that my vicious large dog might be some sort of threat. I ignored her, and began to look around the shop. We lost track of each other, and at some point, she again placed her dog on the floor. I was standing at the checkout counter, ready with my purchase, when her dog realized Ripley was just around the corner. The little dog lunged to the end of her retractable leash, snarling and yipping, doing everything in her power to try to get at us, until the woman was able to rein her in.

Now, let me be clear. Any dog can be a service dog, even a small dog. But service dogs exhibit certain types of behavior. If Ripley was barking in a store, she could be asked to leave. If she lunged after another dog or a customer in a store, she could be asked to leave. That is not acceptable behavior for a service dog. Yet often, when asked, the owners of these little dogs will claim that their dogs are service dogs. They will point to a tag on the dog’s collar, or simply say, “She’s a service dog.” Perhaps there might be some confusion. Some of these dogs may be emotional support animals. People can get notes from their doctors allowing emotional support animals, whose only job is to supply comfort. But an emotional support dog has only two privileges: to live in an apartment or home where dogs are not normally allowed, and to fly on an airplane with you. They are not allowed in restaurants, stores, movie theaters, hospitals, etc.

People who violate service dog rules make it more difficult for those of us who actually need a working dog. It means I am more likely to be challenged when I bring my dog into a business establishment. It makes business owners more leery, because they have dealt with nuisance dogs. Business owners should know, however, they can ask any person to leave who has a dog who is misbehaving.

Ann Hutchinson pix

Two poodles at a restaurant near Bodega Bay – one is actually sitting in a chair at the table.

Friends of mine who have learned about service dogs by spending time with me are now also on the lookout for all these posers, and frequently report back when they encounter them. Last weekend, my friend Ann went to a restaurant near Bodega Bay, and snapped this photo. Two women were in a restaurant, each with a small white dog. Not only were the dogs in the restaurant, but one of the women pulled up a chair for her dog, and the dog sat at the table for the whole meal. When Ann confronted her about it, the woman said the dog was a service animal. Really? Let me tell you – service dogs don’t sit on chairs at restaurants.

Having an undisciplined dog in a store or restaurant causes problems for a real service dog, because the undisciplined dog reacts when seeing the service dog. Nobody wants to hear the barking and carrying on – and it’s not the service dog’s fault.  In truth, it’s not the little dog’s fault, either. It’s the owner’s problem, because they are behaving like an over-indulgent parent, allowing his or her undisciplined child to run wild. Which does nobody any favors.

Being a service dog is more than simply having a slip of paper or a vest. A service dog works, has tasks that he or she performs. And on top of that, he or she exhibits a certain demeanor when out in public. Anyone should be able to tell at a glance whether or not your dog is a real working dog.

Don’t be afraid to call a fake when you see one.



Geared Up! A Dog’s Duffel Bag

Ripley and I are always schlepping our gear around. One of the consequences of not being able to drive is that, unlike most people, we aren’t able to use a car as a big, traveling suitcase. If we want to have something with us, we need to be able to carry it. Since I have my own stuff on any given day (writerly things like notepads, pens, books, a laptop, a camera), adding Ripley’s gear to the mix can get cumbersome. So we have learned to be compact and plan well.

One way we do that is to have Ripley’s bag always packed. When our ride arrives, all I have to do is clip on her vest, and grab a leash and the Ripley bag, and we’re out the door. When with friends who have young children, I sometimes jokingly refer to this tote as my “diaper bag,” and they completely understand. Can’t leave home without it.

So what goes into a good dog’s duffel bag? First off, there’s the bag itself. I happen to be very partial to Timbuk2 bags. Timbuk2 is based in San Francisco. They got their start making bicycle messenger bags, and have since branched out to make duffel bags, laptop bags, etc. The one thing that stays the same is the tough durability, the high quality of the craftmanship, and the great design, plus fun colors. I own a bunch of them. So choosing a Tumbuk2 duffel bag for Ripley was an easy choice. It has outside pockets, D-rings on both ends for clip-on accessories, loop straps as well as a shoulder strap. It zips closed all the way down the top. Inside, it is roomy and open, but along each side there are individual cubbies for stashing things, some of which are pockets, some mesh, one with a long zipper. The entire bag is water resistant and easy to clean.

Water Bowl

collapsible water bowl

The most important item in the bag is, of course, water. I carry a metal water bottle that is just Ripley’s (paw prints to make it obvious) so I never mistakenly use it for something else and forget to put it back in the bag. It has a carabiner on the top, so it can be attached to the outside of the bag, or to my belt if needed. Along with the bottle, I have a small collapsible water dish. This is hands-down the best one on the market. I have tried at least half a dozen water dispensers, from collapsible cloth bowls (they take forever to dry) to a folding bottle with a tray (Ripley wouldn’t touch it). This simple little bowl is perfect. It holds a little over one cup of water; you can easily refill it if your dog needs more. It doesn’t tip over. When done, just flatten, tap on the ground to shake off the excess water, and then use the carabiner to hang it off the end of your bag (or clip to your belt loop). It also will wipe completely dry with a paper towel.

Treat Bag

Outward Hound treat bag

Ripley would say the next most important thing is the treat bag! I use one from Outward Hound, a small bag with a drawstring enclosure that has a belt clip on back. Should I actually need it, I can easily attach it to my back or side pocket and carry it along.

Of course, one must always have an extra stock of poop bags, too. Ripley keeps six or seven in her vest pocket, but I stash a whole roll in the dog bag. Especially as a service dog, it is exceedingly bad manners not to clean up after one’s messes. So, like good Girl Scouts, we are always prepared.

The largest item in our bag is the fleecy dog blanket. Now, you may think at first blush that it’s a bit luxurious for Ripley to travel around with her own cushy blanket. But it really does make sense, at so many levels.

We often go into private homes. People are very gracious, even when they have no pets of their own. Still, I like to minimize our impact. Yellow labs shed. By placing the blanket down next to my chair, Ripley not only has a comfortable “home base” for the duration of the visit, we also keep the blonde hairs in one spot.

If we go to public venues, such as movie theaters or concert halls, the floors may be concrete or wooden, or marble. Any of these can be cold and uncomfortable for her, especially now that she is getting older, so having the blanket makes a difference if she is expected to lie on the floor for a two or three hour performance. It also serves a second purpose – those same floors can cause the slightest sound to ricochet through the room. A dog’s toe nails on the floor in the middle of a concert – eek! So having the blanket allows Riley a safe place to curl up, and move slightly now and then without fear of creating an interruption in the program.

And finally, when in restaurants, the blanket is the perfect solution when the legs of the table are structured in such a way that there is no unobstructed place for Ripley to lie down. I put the blanket over the top of any table leg bases, and that’s enough of a signal for her. She happily snuggles in for the duration.

Dog Socks-Converse

Pawks dog socks

A couple final items: I carry a spare set of dog socks (the primary set is in Ripley’s vest), for use on slippery floors – mainly grocery stores; a small flashlight, for night-time potty breaks (remember, you have to be able to find it before you can put it in the bag!); an extra leash (because too often I have forgotten one in someone’s car); a dog comb; and a small shopping bag, which I clip to the outside of the duffel bag with a carabiner. I also have a Service Dog patch attached to the bag, along with an ID tag, so that anyone finding the bag will know whose it is, and will hopefully return it.

There you go! Ready to pack yours now?


New Patches, Stronger Message

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.

Medical Alert

Medical Alert Dog patch with caduceus symbol

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.

Please Ask

Working: Please Ask Before Petting patch

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.


Working Dog: Do Not Disturb patch

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.


Coffee with a Canine

Hey, Ripley and I are getting out in the world! The blogosphere, that is. A few months ago, I was contacted by Marshal Zeringue, the host of a blog called Coffee with a Canine. He found me and Ripley through our Canine Bodhisattva postings, and invited us to be guests on his site. Eternally busy, it took me a while to get back to him, but I finally did. Marshal explained the rules – you take your dog out for a coffee date (to a cafe, or a park, or wherever), snap a few photos, and when you return, answer the questions that have been provided ahead of time. You got it, I said. We’re game!

Ripley and I are the featured pair on the Coffee with the Canine website on Jan. 8, visiting our favorite Cloverdale hangout, Plank Coffee – click here to read our interview. The participants (human) on Coffee with a Canine seem to all have some literary connection – writers, freelancers, bloggers, or artists such as photographers or children’s book illustrators. You can search through the archives by dog breed, with dozens and dozens of dogs to choose from.

It’s a fun place to pop in for a morning cuppa, meet a friend and revel in dog stories.

Here’s the main site link: Coffee with a Canine.

Grab some hot coffee and enjoy!




A Dog Doctor’s Discount

No dog loves going to the vet. Remarkably, though, Ripley has always been pretty brave about the whole thing. Our regular vet clinic, Wikiup Vet Hospital, is staffed with kind, compassionate and professional people, from front desk to techs to our main vet, Erich Williams. They have always been great to us, giving us a multi-pet discount, routinely comping small services like nail trims and follow-up appointments, and in general treating us like family. Ripley didn’t seem to mind going there, since it was usually only for regular check-ups and vaccines – especially since she was always rewarded with what we jokingly refer to at home as “trauma cookies” – cookies given as rewards after anything even remotely unpleasant.

All of that changed in 2014, though, when Ripley had a remarkably bad year. So bad, for both of us, that I couldn’t even write about it at the time. In January, late one night when we were at the house, and Sabrina was working graveyard, I stood in the kitchen handing out cookies to all three dogs. Ripley got a piece of the cookie caught in her lip, and tried to back out of the kitchen, beginning to act distressed. That helplessness triggered a melee, and all of a sudden, our 130-pound, two-year-old Great Dane was on top of her. We had a full-blown dog attack taking place in the narrow hallway. It took all my strength to break it up. Luckily that night, Ripley’s injuries were superficial enough that we could wait until morning for Sabrina to drive us to the vet to be checked and cleaned. We believed it to be a fluke, centered around the food, and became more diligent about similar situations.

But in late February, again late at night, again when Sabrina was working (remember, I can’t drive, and we live out in the country – almost an hour from an emergency vet clinic), the same thing happened. This time, though, the Dane tore Ripley’s whole back open. After finally managing to separate the dogs, my hands shook as I dialed first the number of a friend to drive us to a clinic, and then Sabrina, for advice on what to do while I waited. It looked ghastly, but was primarily a flesh wound, thank god. Still, Ripley was in shock, and terrible pain. It took nearly 90 minutes from the incident until I could get her to the clinic. Once there, I had to leave her overnight for surgery. Because the damage was so extensive, a few weeks later, a second surgery was required.

Needless to say, following this, we had to find a new home for the Great Dane, which in itself was a heartbreak. But Ripley’s safety came first, and it had become clear that it would be impossible for her to do her job, and help me, with the potential threat of this dog. (We found a wonderful home for the Dane through Rocket Dog Rescue of San Francisco. She was not a bad dog; she got along fine with our two male dogs. It appeared that the aggression was tied in with female-on-female competition, emerging as the Dane was reaching sexual maturity. Still, an unworkable situation in our home.)

When any dog has health issues, it is a concern for their owner. But when a service dog has issues, it has a critical impact on the life of the handler. What do you do if your dog is sick? If they don’t feel well enough to go out, or are injured? During Ripley’s recuperation from her injuries, I stayed home with her almost the entire time, and was very protective while slowly bringing her back into a working environment. One of the lingering effects of the attacks, though, was not fear of other dogs – but fear of veterinarians. Now she cowered, and tried to crawl under my chair whenever we had to go to the vet.

In November, I started noticing she was having discharge from her eyes, and immediately had concern. Her eyes looked red, and somewhat irritated. I took her to Wikiup, and had it checked out, but nothing obvious showed up. We tried some simple drops, and antibiotics. However, the problem seemed to persist. I became more worried. One of our older dogs, who passed away a couple of years ago, had suffered from sudden onset glaucoma, and had lost her sight because of it. I had been the person who raced her to UC Davis in the middle of the night, trying to save her eyesight. I panicked, thinking some similar scenario might be playing out. So, not wanting to take any chances, I made an appointment with the specialist, Dr. Rebecca Burwell at Eye Care for Animals.

Now, as soon as I made that appointment, I knew it would be expensive. She is a specialist, and just like human doctor specialists, she charges more. And 2014 had been a very expensive year in vet bills. I don’t have insurance for Ripley, so each of those surgeries and follow-up appointments and bottles of pills got paid for out of pocket. And most had been not at our regular vet, but at the emergency vet clinic, upping the price tag even more. But you don’t think about that. I mean, you do, but you don’t. She’s my service dog. She’s my Ripley. You do what you have to do to keep her healthy.

So Sabrina and I went in, and Dr. Burwell checked her eyes, the complete, thorough exam – and said they were fine. All she needs is over-the-counter eye drops to help with dry eyes. I was so relieved, just to know I had eliminated the bad possibilities. It was worth the $155 office visit.

I went to the front desk to pay, and pulled out my bank card. The receptionist pushed the bill towards me, saying, “Dr. Burwell has given you a discount.” And I said, “Oh, thanks.” And I continued handing her my card. The receptionist said, “No, you don’t understand. I don’t need your card.” And she pointed to the bill.

There, at the bottom of the bill, was the discount. It said, “Guide Dogs-Working: ($155.00) Total Due: $ 0.00”

She had written off the entire balance of the bill, the whole office visit. The receptionist said, “She likes to do that when she can.” I stood there in shock for a minute. Sabrina started crying. Then I felt tears in my eyes, too.

“Thank you,” we whispered. “Thank you.”


Another Restaurant, A Happy Ending

Sometimes all it takes is some communication.

A couple of years ago, Sabrina and I went to Sake O, a Japanese restaurant in Healdsburg, with Ripley at my side. We were met at the door with a perplexed, although very apologetic, waiter. He said, with great discomfort, “I’m so sorry. But we can’t allow dogs.”

I lived in Japan for three years, and know how much most Japanese hate conflict. It was clear on this man’s face. He was in a predicament, and wasn’t quite sure how to resolve it. I immediately moved into education mode. I said, “This isn’t just a dog. She’s a special kind of dog, who helps me. She’s a working dog, a service dog, who assists me because I have a disability.” He still looked very concerned, and glanced over his shoulder towards some of his co-workers, obviously seeking backup.

At this point, I reached into Ripley’s vest pocket, and pulled out my copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Business Brief, a one-page guide that explains the rights and responsibilities of businesses owners with regard to service animals. (You can find a link to it on my resources page here.) I handed it to him, and quietly pointed out the parts that were relevant. He took it, glanced over it, and with a quick nod, picked up menus, and escorted us to our table.

As we were choosing our food, we saw the waiter and another man who appeared to be the manager or owner reading the sheet of paper. When the waiter came to take our order, he said, “Thank you so much. This is very helpful. We have always worried – we didn’t know how to explain to other customers, if they would complain that there was a dog in the restaurant. But now we have this. We can show it to them.”

Later, as we were eating, we glanced up towards the sushi bar, into the open kitchen, and saw that the entire kitchen crew was reading our ADA Business Brief, heads bent in a circle. When we left, everyone smiled and thanked us for coming.

Since that time, we have returned to Sake O on several occasions, and we are always greeted warmly — all three of us.

These are the moments when I value community, communication and, as I do every day, the wonderful dog who keeps me safe.


Not Welcome

Ripley and I are out in the world so often, that I must preface this post by saying that the vast majority of the time we are treated very well. Store owners are gracious and kind, and respectful of our working relationship. However, that can make it even more of a jolt when we run into outright hostility. Nothing can change the mood of a casual outing so quickly as an icy encounter.

Today we were invited to go to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa, to celebrate the birthday of a friend. It was to be a large gathering, about twenty people. My friend Wendy agreed to drive me to the lunch, and we were the first to arrive. We waited a bit in the parking lot, until a couple of other women showed up. Then I headed for the front door. Ripley and I were the first to step inside, with Wendy close behind.

As soon as we crossed the threshold, the manager came forward and blocked our passage. Without saying a word, he began looking disapprovingly from me to Ripley, back and forth. He shook his head repeatedly, still mute, making hand gestures indicating that we would not be allowed access.

I said, “She’s a service dog. It’s the law. You have to let her in.” No response. I have in the past a few times run into problems in restaurants and stores managed by people who are first-generation immigrants. They have come from countries where service dogs are not a familiar concept, and are sometimes unaware of local laws. I thought this might be a similar situation, and tried to deal with this as I had dealt with it before. I showed him my Medic-Alert bracelet, and said, “I have a disability.” Still, not a word from him. I was beginning to wonder if language might be part of our problem. I tried several more times to state my case. Nothing. Then I reached to Ripley’s vest, and unzipped a pocket. I pulled out a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Business Brief, a one-page sheet that explains what rights and responsibilities businesses have with regards to service dogs. On other occasions, I have used this successfully to help with communications, as sometimes reading is easier than speaking.

As I attempted to hand the paper to him, he finally spoke. “I don’t need any papers,” he said, in very clear English, still with a disapproving and unhappy look on his face. “What I want to know is how the dog assists you. Does it guide you to the table?” Then I knew what I was up against – he knew all about service dogs. He just did not believe that I needed one. Legally, he was asking the one question that a business person can ask: “What tasks does the dog perform?” But he should have asked it the moment I walked in the door. Not kept me standing there, flustered and confused for three minutes, feeling judged.

At this point, several other members of my party had begun to gather behind us. I knew stating tasks at that point wouldn’t be enough. I said, “I have a condition called periodic paralysis disorder.” He was barely listening to me. But several women behind me began to speak up. “She’s a service dog. We have seen what she does.” Realizing that it was going to turn into a scene if he pursued it, the manager threw up his hands, and said, “There are two tables. Go ahead,” and walked away from us.

I felt terrible. We were in, but not welcome. I chose a seat at the end of the long table. The tables had large, round metal supports, so Ripley could not sit underneath. I had her lie down just alongside me at the head of the table. There was a small chest right behind her, creating a a narrow space for her that was protected. It was easy for the wait staff to walk around the chest and still get to every seat at our table to serve. Yet at one point, the manager tried to cut through that space, and couldn’t, seeing Ripley, and again, I saw the exasperation and hostility on his face.

It’s so hard to know what to do when finding oneself in situations like this. Part of me wants to stay, to prove a point. Damn it, I have every right to be here, and I will be here. I should be here to maybe make it better for the next service dog/handler team. And the other part of me says, why should I stay where I am not wanted?

We compromised. We stayed for most of the meal, but we were the first to leave. I felt a huge wave of relief when we stepped out the front door.

And I had to remind myself that this is an anomaly, and not the norm. For which I am sincerely grateful.


The Perfect Cup

We went to The Bean Affair, a favorite coffee shop in Healdsburg, and I ordered my usual soy latte. As always, I asked to have my drink in the big bowl mug – love the way that it fits in my hand, the warmth. When we went to the counter to pick up our drink, the barista said, “I chose a special cup just for you.” Couldn’t be more perfect. These are the days that we feel loved as a service dog/handler team. Thanks, Bean Affair!

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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