When Ripley and I are out in the world as a service dog/handler team, most of the time we receive a very warm welcome. We are lucky, living in Sonoma County, California – the presence of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) means that many people in this region are familiar with the blue vests of service dogs. We are frequently approached by folks who say they have attended a graduation at CCI, or they have friends who raise puppies, or that they themselves have been part of the training process of a working dog. All of that exposure means that, for the most part, Ripley and I don’t have to explain ourselves.
But we have run into those moments when a store clerk or restaurant owner has met us at the door and said, “No dogs.” Often, it has been a situation involving a first-generation American, perhaps because of the lack of exposure in their countries of origin. So, for example, I have caused consternation at gas station quick stops, some restaurants, and small groceries.
In each case, rather than either giving up and leaving, or getting angry and demanding my rights, I look at the opportunity as a teachable moment. Ripley’s service vest has zippered pockets, and they are handy for much more than plastic waste bags. The U.S. Department of Justice provides, via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an ADA Business Brief about service animals. It is a one-page summary about how a a business must respond to a service dog and his or her handler – what questions they can ask, how they must treat them, all the basic rules. It also explains in simple, straight-forward language what a service dog is, differentiating them from pets, and provides a telephone number and website for further information.
I always keep at least three copies of the ADA Business Brief in Ripley’s vest. If I run into a situation where someone is unfamiliar with service dogs, I pull out a copy and present it to them. It’s amazing how the tension dissolves. People love to have explanations and something tangible to refer to – especially in a situation where you might be dealing with a person who speaks English as a second language, having something in writing is key. In a Japanese restaurant, I remember the owner said very gratefully, “Oh, thank you. Now I can show this to any of my patrons, in case they ask me why there is a dog in the restaurant.” Later, when I was eating, I looked over towards the kitchen, and saw the entire kitchen staff reading the brief.
At a Mexican grocery, I had similar good results. Once I had shown the brief, and explained (another thing I will often do is make the connection with my medical alert bracelet, since my condition is not readily visible – it helps people understand more — then I point to the similar symbol on Ripley’s vest), on a later visit to the same store, a young girl was expressing fear around Ripley’s presence. This is another cultural gap, where in some countries dogs may run wild in the streets or be used mostly as guard animals, so people are more fearful of them. The store owner, speaking to her in Spanish, explained that this was a helper dog, and that she had nothing to fear. It was a beautiful moment, hearing him advocate for us.
More recently, I have run into encounters at other establishments where our entire identity as a service dog/handler team is being questioned. That is fodder for another post, as we ponder the abuses of the system, when folks randomly buy vests online and then take pets into stores and restaurants, passing them off as service dogs, introducing an unneeded hurdle for the real working teams who must then deal with the repercussions. Very frustrating, and too common. But, as I said — for another post.