I am training my dog to be a service dog for my twin boys that have both been diagnosed on the spectrum.
Today was our first day of public access. To put it bluntly, I was nervous. Service dog training is all new to me. I know I was being a little over-reactive, but the important part is that I took a deep breath, felt the fear and did it anyway.
Our first stop was the post office. After we arrived, I got his autism service vest on. He hopped out of the van and I pottied him. The last thing I needed for our first experience with the public was an accident. Boy did what he needed to do and we headed in.
When I walked into the building I felt awkward and out of place. I know what it’s like to get looks when I doll myself up (even then I typically don’t like it), but this was different. People were reacting with mixed emotions to my dog. Some smiled while others looked at him and then looked at me wondering if I had autism. Then others were trying to figure out why I brought my “pet dog” into the building, even though he had a marked SERVICE DOG vest on.
When the post office clerk saw us she yelled, “He is???” I quickly said, “A service dog, yes.” My heart was racing because I didn’t know if she was going to kick us out. She said, “He is really big” and then mumbled disapprovingly to herself as she walked to the back. My heart sank. I thought, Really? This is the reaction to my lab/bloodhound mix? I don’t have a disability that would cause anxiety and from all this pressure the room is spinning. I can’t imagine what this is like for someone that does.
My heart goes out to those people. You aren’t able to blend in because people are constantly reacting. In addition, due to lack of awareness, you have to go into defensive mode as to why you have the right to be in the building with your service dog.
After the clerk got her opinions out, Boy and I waited in a long line to send a letter. At first he was going into his “therapy dog mode.” He was trying to greet people, but when he is doing service work he is not allowed to be petted. I was consistent with him and kept him close. He whined a few times in the post office, but was still very engaged and checking in with me for cues. I think he could feel my nerves rattling.
After the post office we headed to downtown Dallas to visit our friends at The Pooch Patio. I found this cute little boutique, doggy day care, grooming, and dog friendly bistro on-line earlier this week and thought we had to check it out! It was charming and quaint. Honestly I felt relieved to go into a pet friendly place. After the post office experience, I didn’t want to put his vest on; no pressure.
We walked through two gates to get into the shop. He was cautious so it was really good socialization for him. I gave him a lot of praise and like any man with a stroked ego he was pleased with himself.
While Boy enjoyed his frozen treat the manager and I chatted.
Our next stop was down the road to a cool place, Mutt Canine Cantina. This is a dog park and dog friendly outdoor restaurant and bar. They have a large eating area where you can hang out with furry and human friends. Boy and I enjoyed a lemonade together. He was able to see a lot of other dogs going in and out of the park so this was great socialization.
Then we headed to Trader Joes to get some organic food of goodness. By the time we got to the grocery store I felt confident enough to put his vest on again. People were very receptive. Many people acted like Boy was a rock super star, which both him and I know that is truth. Some people were curious and I could hear them talk. Others gushed with happiness to see a dog and could hardly contain themselves not to pet him. We did, however, have one person come up and pet him. As a handler, I found this challenging. I can see how for someone with a disability this could add additional stress on him/her.
Something happened with me and Boy in Trader Joes though. It clicked for both of us. He knew I needed him close and focused. He was there for me and not everyone else. He started leaning into me. When I stopped to look at products he moved between the cart and me and leaned into my legs. He was constantly looking up at me checking in and I could feel us communicating. To me this is when the magic happens in the dog training process. Everything in my world lines up when I am that connected to a dog.
Picture above: Yes, I had to powder my nose so Boy got more socialization. He was enjoying the view of himself and I totally photo bombed him 🙂
As we were checking out with our goodies, Boy placed himself between me and the checkout counter and leaned into my legs. It was as if he knew He was suppose to be there. Maybe I was just handling him in a way that communicated that. Either way, I was surprised and proud of him.
While at the check out counter another mom said, “Excuse me. Can I ask about your dog?” I said, “Sure.” She noticed the autism logo on Boy’s vest and we started talking about our children and what tasks Boy is being trained for. I also shared with her about the Foundation that Valerie Fry and I are starting here in Dallas. She was stoked and in that moment two moms with kids with autism had a moment. We realized we weren’t alone.
Training autism service dog is different than others because typically the caregiver is the handler for the dog versus the person that the dog is providing services for. Boy and I will be working together to keep my kids safe and provide a better life. I am thankful I have such a great partner.
At the end of our first public access day, we both went into the teamwork mode. I can see how the bond between human and canine helps so much with the service dog team. You know each other and are able to communicate just like a veteran, 40 years along married couple. You just know the little looks and cues.
All in all, I think our first day was pretty great and very insightful on many levels.
Blog written by Michelle Huntting