They say you don’t always get the dog you want, you get the dog you need. Never has that been more true than with my Steve. He was such a shy, reactive puppy. He was so hard for me to deal with. I was used to training confident pit bulls, not wilting flower herdy dogs. He was so afraid of other puppies his size that he had to play with the toy breed puppies in puppy class. He was reactive to anything that he deemed out of the ordinary. If I left my shoes in the wrong place he’d freak out and not come in the room. People were terrifying. Dogs were terrifying.
I really struggled. This was not what I had had in mind. This was not what I had bargained for.
But we worked on it. We worked hard. Desensitization and “Look at That” and as much non-scary socialization as I could manage. Nobody was allowed to touch him but they could throw him cookies. And as time went on and he matured, it became more and more apparent that all of my hard work had paid off.
He’s still a complete spazmonkey around dog sports, but in the rest of life, he truly has become a good, stable, level-headed dog.
Which is good, because that has allowed me to make him into my Service Dog.
If you’ve read this blog in the past, you know I lost a significant portion of the hearing in my left ear a couple years ago. That’s where this began, really. I was so scared I’d be sleeping with my good ear down and not hear the phone or the alarm clock, so I taught him to wake me up when my alarm went off. And then I encouraged him to be extremely perseverant about it, because when I started all these medications for sleep and mental stability last year, it became harder and harder to get up in the morning. I started relying on him.
And then I started taking it further. Just at home. Just because I could, and because he is a tremendous comfort to me. We are so close. He and I have some kind of connection that I don’t even know how to describe. So I taught him to interrupt me when I start to get panicky and flighty or to get stuck in that dissociative place where bad stuff happens. He alerted naturally to it, but I taught him to paw me, to lick me, to jump up on me until he got a response.
And then one day my therapist asked about my using him a service dog, since I was having so very much trouble in public places with sensory overload and panic, and he was already interrupting me and helping me to ground myself at home. I was like… I have no idea if he could handle being out in public like that. He’s such a spaz. But she encouraged me to try.He has been remarkable. I have added body-blocking on my hearing-impaired side to his list of tasks, because it was easy to grow out of his solid knowledge of heel position and my need to keep people from being able to (unintentionally) “sneak up” on me without my hearing them. (Hello, PTSD issues.)
He has been solid, and the more he goes out, the more solid he becomes. He hardly pays any attention to kids (even ones who bark at him), to other people, to drive-by pettings. It did take him awhile to figure out that not all check-outs have treats for dogs the way that PetsMart does. He’s alarm barked a couple of times (a knock on the office door, a doorbell sound in a diner) but even that he has learned isn’t necessary. That this is a different place than home. That this is a different job.
It’s harder for me, I think, than for him. I wish I could make him as invisible as my disabilities. He gets so much attention. Kids want to pet him or screech and run away in terror. People ask me all kinds of questions. Sometimes they get very invasive, and that is hard for me to deal with. They always seem to think I’m training him for someone else or they seem to imply that I’m a faker. No, he’s my service dog. They look at me blankly.
Not all disabilities are visible.
I worry about being challenged, but it’s only happened a couple of times. And both times I kept ahold of myself and was able to deal with it without freaking out. They’re only allowed to ask you two questions– is the dog a service dog, and what tasks does he perform. It is hard to answer the second without giving away more personal information than I’d like, but so be it. I carry a card that has all the ADA information on it as pertains to service dogs and rights of access. I also carry postcards with his picture on it and reminders of how to behave around service dogs, with all the ADA info on the back.
Largely he has been warmly welcomed everywhere I’ve taken him. He goes to all of my doctor’s appointments. He goes to restaurants and squishes himself under the table and people don’t even know he’s there. He goes shopping with me, which is where I need him the most, walks next to the cart, doesn’t mess with any food, holds a down stay while I unload the cart at the check-out. Wags his tail politely when people baby-talk him.
It makes me feel so self-conscious. We’ve been doing this for months now, and I know that I could not do life without him right now. I could not function. I could not keep my head together enough to grocery shop without him there to nose-poke me and remind me of where I am and what is real.
It scares me to rely on him so much. He is lame again– we are seeing his rehab vet in a couple hours– and I don’t care if he can return to sports any time soon as long as he can continue to accompany me places that I need to go.
I never expected to have a Service Dog. I never expected to need a Service Dog. I never believed that Steve, my shy, reactive, crazy Border Collie could ever be solid and stable and quiet enough to be a Service Dog, but for whatever reason, when I put that vest on him, he knows it’s time to work and he knows what he needs to do.
Dogs are amazing. My dog is especially amazing. I am beyond lucky to have him, beyond grateful that he chose me and that the breeder allowed me to have him. I genuinely do not know what I’d do without him.