For me, the hardest part of living as a service team is being able to find my own voice. As a service dog, Sailor is trained to be task-trained. Officially, she is considered a medical device and is trained to do medical alerts to help me with my condition. Many people just see a beautiful shepherd with a loving energy. Sometimes people think because she is sitting pretty next to me she wants attention or that she is bored. People will approach us and automatically reach out to pet her because she looks friendly, while others will call to her purposefully trying to draw her attention to them. Unfortunately, when we are approached like this, it causes physiological changes inside my body that she will then respond to with the tasks she has been trained to do. It took me many months to learn how to respond in situations like this because it wasn’t easy to find my voice to be able to tell people, “No, you may not pet her,”or “Please don’t distract her,” or “She’s working for me.”
It was a real struggle because I felt like I was already facing so much judgment for being someone with disabilities others can’t see. Situations like these caused many panic attacks, meltdowns, tears, and fear. I didn’t want to go in public and my anxiety would start to rage simply anticipating these situations. These examples don’t even include the more aggressive and less friendly interactions regarding public access. You can only imagine how difficult those situations are to navigate emotionally, mentally, and physically.
At one point in our journey together a meltdown took place in the foyer of a popular, local store. I was on the floor in tears with my arms wrapped around Sailor as she placed deep pressure on my lap. I could feel shoppers coming into the store behind me looking at us wondering what was happening, and if anybody should do anything. Sailor knew what was happening to me and knew how to respond. This is what a working service dog team can look like. Sometimes we look perfectly normal when things are going well, but at times we can look like something might be wrong, when in fact the dog is doing exactly what it is trained to do. Sailor is my superhero.
We never know when triggers will occur that can warrant Sailor to go into action with her tasks, so it is so important that the general public understand and respect the role of a service dog as a medical device for its handler. You may not be able to see the disability, but please know that there is often more than meets the eye. If you aren’t sure if a dog is a service dog, there are some clues to look for. Service dogs are usually marked, but the Americans With Disabilities Act law does not require a vest or cape. Most handlers will use a vest though and place patches with helpful instructions for others. They may read “Do Not Pet” or “Do Not Distract”. Please know that we mean what the patches say and we truly appreciate when others obey them. You can also recognize a service dog because they are walking on all fours next to their handler, although special situations can apply for diabetes trained dogs. Service dogs are trained to maintain a particular proximity to their handler. You won’t see service dogs on retractable leashes, in carriages, or riding in shopping carts. It is important to recognize their demeanor. They are well-trained dogs with a specific temperament to be able to do their job. Although dogs sometimes make mistakes, you won’t hear a service dog barking in public or being noisy. Actually if they are doing well at their job, most people won’t even realize they are in the building until they walk right passed you. Sailor and I have that happen often when we fly or when we are in a restaurant. She is quietly tucked away at my feet. When we get up and leave, you hear people saying, “I didn’t even know there was a dog in here!” That makes me feel good because it has been a journey to navigate new environments and train her to stay focused in a variety of different environments.
After a year of training in many different places and situations, Sailor now attends school with me everyday. I am a public school music teacher in New Jersey and am thankful to have Sailor with me at work. In just a matter of one month, we are already seeing changes in my daily functioning and the physiology of my body because of her and the job she does everyday.
If you are interested in learning more about Susie and Sailor visit www.mindfulsailor.com
The site is dedicated to their journey together.
Susie Guckin is the author of the book "The Camouflaged Heart"