Most people think a working dog is constantly at the same stage of alertness, but there are actually three levels of service: on duty, on call, and off duty.
On duty is the stage the general public is most familiar with. When a working dog dons her vest, that means she is on duty. When Ripley is on duty, a number of things take place. First, she is focused and alert, with her attention on me. She walks easily and closely at my side, and is not distracted. If someone asks to pet her, she looks at me first to see if it’s okay. She allows a brief hello, and is back to business. People who expect the typical exuberant Labrador greeting are often disappointed, thinking she is being unfriendly, but that’s not it. She simply has a job to do.
She tucks herself into small spaces, staying out of the way, with her top priority being that she is in close proximity to me. When we are in social settings, she is extremely quiet. She sits through theater performances, concerts, restaurant meals, and no one knows she is there until she emerges at the end from under my chair or the table.
And, of course, she does her job. Ripley is both a medical alert and assist dog for my seizure disorder, and a psychiatric service dog for my bipolar disorder. It is her job to remind me to take my medications on time, to help me get to a safe place and stay with me when I am having my seizures, to calm me down when I begin being hypomanic. Because my medications are sedative, she also has tasks similar to those of a hearing dog, and wakes me in case of emergencies, such as a smoke alarm going off, or other middle of the night incidents.
The next level of service is on call. This means the dog is still working, but at a more relaxed level. Typically, on call is when the dog is at home. The vest is off, the leash is off. At our house, Ripley usually stays in the same room with me, just inches away. It looks as if she’s a dog taking a nap. But, she’s still working. Many of her tasks happen at home – medication reminders, mood management, seizure monitoring. The difference is that she doesn’t have to wear that public persona. She can appear more like a dog. However, she’s not doing crazy canine things like the other two hooligans in the house, such as racing into the yard to bark at raccoons, or rushing out to annoy the UPS man. Even though this is a step-down level of duty, it is still on duty, and she acts with some decorum.
The final level of service is off duty. This is when a working dog knows she is officially allowed to be “dog.” For us, the epitome of this is going to the beach. When we step onto the sand, and I remove Ripley’s vest, she transforms from a sedate and mature service animal into a frolicking pup instantaneously. In and out of the surf, splashing and playing. We have been to San Diego several times and visited Dog Beach at Ocean Beach, a favorite location. Even here, though, her behavior is somewhat different than a typical dog. The handler/service dog bond is so strong, that when she plays, she wants to interact with me, not other dogs. So Ripley politely greets any canines who say hello, but what she really wants to do is have fun with me. She waits on the beach until I wade out into the surf, and I open my arms wide. Then she races out to meet me to give a wet hello. She turns, runs back to the shore, and we repeat – over and over – as if we are the only two on the beach.
We also have off duty time wading in the Russian River, playing at the dog park, or even in our own front yard – without the vest, romping through the grass, being silly. That’s all it takes.