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  • Zoë Rose and Elyssa B.

What I wish you understood with service animals

Health is a big topic lately, not just the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, but also mental health and the impact of our industry. We have continued this conversation from a variety of fronts, including conference going organisations dedicated to mental health.

Last year, it was a bit closer to home, when my little sister Elyssa finally was able to adopt a service animal, for her specialised needs. Cleopatra, a golden retriever now just shy of a year old and around 75 lbs, has enabled Elyssa to regain some independence.

As an outside view in, I saw a district change in confidence, hope, and resilience Elyssa has had, from the moment of receiving Cleo. I would like to take a moment to thank the community for all the support she received when I shared the GoFundMe link - without your support this wouldn’t have been possible.

Having heard from others on twitter on the difference their service animals provide them, my curious mind wanted to understand better. I had a chat with my sister to ask questions she wished people understood on service animals - see below for what Elyssa said. Have additional questions? Reach out!

What I wished people knew about service animals?

The number one thing I wish people knew is when it comes to service dogs, even if the dog is only in training, the animal has a job to do.

This job can be as important as notifying someone of a life threatening event such as: a heart attack, diabetes, seizure, panic attack (that can trigger other health problems), asthma attack, mobility "traffic ahead, don't cross" and so much more.

[When a stranger comes up to Cleo] something as simple as saying "what a good dog", "pretty puppy", kissy noises, this can be distracting that dog from it’s task. Even if it was only a second, that dog could have missed an important signal to notify the handler of a life threatening event.

Just like humans can make mistakes so can our dogs, no one is perfect - but how would you feel knowing you caused that working dog to miss a signal and now that handler is in the hospital, or worse?

How has having Cleopatra, changed your life?

From having a service dog there has been many changes in my life. Some of the more noticeable changes would be:

  • I notice my anxiety earlier and can adjust myself to become less anxious. Cleopatra, nicknamed Cleo, performs subtle tasks to let me know I am becoming anxious, such as putting her paw on my foot when I'm tapping anxiously. This allows me to prevent panic attacks from happening, this is great as my panic attacks trigger asthma attacks. I have been to the hospital less since having Cleo.

  • She has given me further independence, I also suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of leaving my house, going to new places and crowded areas. I often didn't leave my home unless forced to. Now Cleo gives me a reason to get out of bed and supports my anxieties so I can leave my house. I am often asked how I know she wants to be a service dog, and well she tells me to go to work. Waking me up and bugging me, you can see a switch flip in her brain when the vest goes on and she is in work mode.

Unfortunately with the good there is also some bad. I have experienced a lot of negativity from other people. As my disability is an invisible one it is difficult for others to accept, and understand why I am in need of a service animal, including not understanding what Cleo does for me.

Cleo provides not just companionship, but is training to be a medical alert psychiatric service dog. Often, when I tell people I suffer from PTSD, they respond with “How?”, did you serve in the military? (Read: Post-traumatic stress disorder in civilians)

I have received questions stating: ”Maybe that you have borderline personality disorder, or bi polar disorder?” from individuals fancying themselves as experts - this alienates me, and can cause me to feel unwelcome. When you are asked "Why do you need a service dog?" It can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes it isn't even the questioning, it is people taking your picture or stopping and staring at you; when all you want is to be treated normally.

What have you experienced as a handler?

  1. Invasion of privacy: had someone take my picture, when my dog was tasking during a panic attack.

  2. Harassed: I have been yelled at for asking someone to leave me alone, when they were asking questions I wasn't comfortable answering at that time. I have also been yelled at for having a dog in a restaurant or grocery store.

  3. Abuse/mistreatment of my service animal: had someone go out of their way to attempt to step on my dogs tail, as well as run my dogs tail over with their cart. This is a $5,000 fine in Canada.

  4. Abuse/mistreatment of myself: often, external persons believe they are able to a better judge of my healthy ,elittled because my disability was invisible and not worthy of a service dog.

  5. Denial of services: I was told I couldn't get into their cab with my dog, and other times I have been asked to leave my dog outside.

How does privilege and perceived privilege relate to service animals?

Privilege is defined as a “special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Perceived privilege is the “belief that one has a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a them.”

When it comes to service animals, perceived privilege shows itself like:

  • Ignoring signage on the dogs vest,

  • Ignoring the handler and only talking to the dog,

  • Ignoring the handler when they ask you to stop, and/or

  • Being upset or insulted when a handler sets boundaries for your interaction with their dog.

Why does this matter? It matters because this forces the disabled person to do the emotional labour on your behalf. The reality is:

  • It is not a handler’s, or disabled persons, responsibility to not hurt your feelings when it comes to interacting with their dog.

  • It's not the handlers job to minimise their disability to make you feel better.

  • It is not the handlers job to let you interact with their dog so you don't get hurt feelings.

  • By Interacting with disabled people or their service dogs with a mentality of privilege, you oppress that person.

"But I was being nice" is still oppression

"Sorry, I thought I was helping" is still oppression

"Well they said no so rudely" is still oppression

It doesn't matter what you thought you were doing. When you cross a boundary set the handler, no matter how "kind" or "nice" or whatever you thought you were doing for that person, you were oppressing them.

If you get upset when someone sets a boundary about themselves or their dog, it doesn't matter that you "have lots of disabled friends" or "use to be a puppy raiser." No one cares.

Your ‘kindness’ doesn't give you the right to violate that persons boundaries. I made a helpful guide for you:

My service animal helps getting me back to my ‘normal,’ whilst not the entirety of my plan, Cleopatra is a vital piece of my independence.

If you’re interested in understanding more about service animals, check out your local regulations, guidances, and do your research. As Elyssa said, it’s not the handler’s job to educate you or make you feel comfortable.

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