– by Molly Neher
Many service dog handlers are continuously questioned about the “validity” of their dog and their disability. These questions can be anywhere from true innocent curiosity “Are you a trainer? No? Oh so what does he do for you?” to complete invasion of privacy and personal attacks: “You look fine, why do you need a service dog?” or “So what’s wrong with you?”
Atlas Assistance Dog trainers and Team Facilitators are dedicated to the well-being and comfort of their clients. This includes helping them learn how to advocate for themselves and not let these intrusive questions and attacks get the best of them. Ultimately though, it does take a lot of personal experience in order to figure out what works best for each individual.
As a “healthy looking” woman in my early 20s, I have been questioned about my service dog and my disability more times than I can count. It was a tough learning process and it took many uncomfortable experiences to master the art of dealing with such inquiries. Here are just a few ways I have learned how to deal with these situations.
When I encounter people that are simply curious, seem to genuinely mean no harm but just lack the awareness and knowledge about service dogs, and when I have time and patience, I try to educate. Though I would prefer not being stopped and questioned, if it is in the right context, I know that my response will [hopefully] help educate that person and that when they encounter the next service dog team, they might leave them alone.
“Do you mind if I ask you what kind of service dog he is?”
“He’s a seizure alert dog”
“Oh wow so you have seizures?”
“And was trained to alert you?”
“Not exactly. He was trained to respond to my seizures and help me through them. He developed the ability to sense them in advance on his own. That is something that cannot be taught.”
“Wow that is amazing, he’s so beautiful”
“Thank you, but please don’t distract him or he will not be able to concentrate and help me.”
I realize of course that not everyone is as open to discussing their medical conditions or disability with random strangers. And that is fine! I am not always in the mood myself, it has to be the “right” person and the right circumstance. Here are some other methods I’ve developed.
Some people feel like it is their right to know everything about your life. It can be very easy to panic, get uncomfortable and feel like you owe them an answer. You don’t. There are many ways you can make it clear that you want to be left alone. Let’s look at a similar situation as the one above, but this person is a little ruder, more intrusive, and you don’t feel like going into details.
“Why do you have a service dog?”
“I need him for my health”
“Yeah but why?”
“I would prefer not discussing this with you, it really isn’t any of your business”
“It just doesn’t seem like there is anything wrong with you…”
“Well not every disability is visible.”
“So what’s wrong with you?”
“Again.. I do not have to tell you.”
I truly hope that no one encounters such a rude person, but I know it happens. I myself have encountered versions of this. It is very easy to get uncomfortable, nervous and want to run. Just remember, you don’t owe anything to anyone. You can also walk away at any time.
Sometimes you might be in a situation where you cannot walk away such as standing in line at the grocery store. Clearly ignoring and making it clear that you are disinterested in any form of communication is sometimes easiest (even if it makes you feel rude).
People love to ask me about my dog when I’m in line at the grocery store and it gets old very fast. My personal strategy is to keep earphones in, even if there is no music playing. Other than that, don’t be afraid to be “rude”. It is 100% okay to give a one line response and turn away.
“Why do you have a service dog?”
“He helps me with my condition.”
“Oh he’s so cute, can I pet him?”
“Please don’t, he’s working.”
“So how is it that you get to take him even in a store with food?”
“The Americans with Disabilities Act gives him access to anywhere I have access to.”
Remember, you must take care of yourself above all else. If you want to help take time and educate the people you talk to, go for it. If you want nothing to do with them, that is fine. Having an adorable dog by your side does not give people the right to approach you and ask you very personal questions. Whatever way you wish to deal with questions from the public while you and your dog are out and about is up to you!