It had been a pretty uneventful trip to the grocery store. We were almost home free, standing in the checkout line – me, Ripley, and my wife Sabrina. As Sabrina pushed the cart ahead, the woman before us turned and said, “Oh, what a cute dog.” I said thank you. She said, “So, is she working, or in training?” Oh. This question. We get this a lot. Because I don’t have an immediately identifiable disability, i.e., I’m not in a wheelchair, and I don’t appear to be blind, people often think I’m training Ripley. And, to be fair, the presence of Canine Companions for Independence in the county does mean that folks do see more training teams.
“No,” I said. “We are a working team.” Then she said, “I wish I had trained my dog to be an assistance dog.” At first, I held out a vague hope that she was saying this because she had some disability, and was recognizing the fact that her dog could have been assisting her over the years. But then, the conversation went in the direction that these conversations go, far too often.
“Just the other day, I had to take my mother to Kaiser,” she said. “I dropped her off, and then I was in the parking lot, and I realized, I still had her Kaiser card and her I.D. Well, I knew I couldn’t leave my dog in the car. She would just panic! So, I went up to the building, and I explained what happened to the person at the door, and he said, ‘Well, just go in, and bring it to her, and hope that no one stops you.’ And no one did! Weren’t we lucky!”
I smiled awkwardly, and said nothing. Because what I was thinking was, “No, I wish someone had stopped you and asked you to leave. Because it’s people like you that make it difficult for people with real service dogs.” But I didn’t say that, because I’m sure she would have thought I was being rude, and she wouldn’t have understood, and she probably would have thought I was making a federal case out of some little incident.
And really, I don’t want to have that feeling. I get angry and flustered. I long to say something, but I don’t. It’s not worth the effort, number one. I can’t be in education mode every moment of every day. I am out with Ripley whenever I am out – and that means these little incidents happen a lot. People are constantly saying things to me such as, “I wish I could take my dog into restaurants,” or “You’re so lucky to be able to bring your dog everywhere.” Well, yes, in a way, I am lucky. I’m grateful for this privilege. I love my dog, and she means the world to me, and I can’t imagine negotiating my daily life without her. But I also hate my disabilities. Do you not think I would trade a “normal” dog/handler relationship for a completely healthy mind and body?
Because of folks like this, the ones who bend the rules, I end up running into problems. I have people who see Ripley’s vest, and still ask me if she is a service dog when I enter a business. There are people who buy vests just so they can bring their cute little toy poodle or chihuahua into the store. (Which isn’t to say that small dogs can’t be service dogs – they can. I’ve just seen a lot of small posers.) I was at a big-box stores, and listened to a dog barking, aisles away, the entire time I was there – supposedly a service dog. Service dogs don’t behave like that. Fortunately, on that day, the staff people kept coming up to me and saying, “Can you believe this? Some people.” They recognized that Ripley, by her demeanor, was truly a service dog, and honored the two of us by commiserating with us over this imposter. Thank goodness. But because of recent incidents like this, and ensuing media coverage, there’s been a bit of a backlash. What was once all friendly has now become occasionally hostile. And it’s largely due to those who try to pass pets off as service animals. There is a difference.
In the end, the only thing I can really do is keep to the high ground. I try to remain friendly, make sure that our team is always behaving well, and follow the rules. We have responsibilities as well as privileges. I never forget that. Even at the grocery store.