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Assistance Dog Changed Life- But Made Disability Visible

April 18, 2019

Almost a year ago exactly, I became the handler of an assistance dog, after a long and rigorous process involving an in-house assessment, a medical assessment and a recommendation from my psychiatrist and my GP respectively.

Almost a year ago, I started working every week with a professional trainer so that both the dog and I could learn what to do.

And suddenly, almost a year ago, my largely hidden disability became startlingly visible, and I’m still getting used to what this means.

My instinct here is to tell you about my illness, my disability, but I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it because the specifics don’t matter, and because one of the things that has amazed me about having an assistance dog in public is the number of people – complete strangers, people I’ve only just been introduced to – who immediately ask me, “How does she assist you?”

And while I understand where this question is coming from – aside from Guide Dogs, assistance dogs are still a fairly new phenomenon – it’s a startlingly invasive request. Because what they’re really asking is that I explain my diagnosis, and the way that it affects me in the world, and reveal some of the things that might go wrong for me in the next few hours. And though I know this isn’t their intention, it always makes me feel like I have to prove that I’m unwell and not just bringing my dog to the cinema because I’m a deluded hipster who treats my pet like my first-born child.

All you need to know, I guess, is that Virginia has made a marked difference in my life. That there are things that I am able to do now that I could not before – and that this is all that anyone can hope for in any kind of disability aid.

Whenever I take Virginia with me somewhere new I always have to brace myself because our entry is so often questioned, if not outright refused. Usually, the staff are great, and the moment I point out what her vest means they apologise profusely – but then the questions start up again. Either that or it’s a customer that intervenes: the man in the greengrocer who said I was disgusting for bringing my dog into the shop and stood over me and shouted as much while the staff stood idly by; the woman on the bus who kept repeating to her friend, loudly and unsubtly, “I can’t believe they’re letting dogs on buses now.”

Once, it was a café owner, who came over to my table to let me know that, after the last time I had been there, someone had left a zero-star review on social media because there’d been a dog inside. “A zero-star review,” he kept saying, and I knew he wanted me to say that I was sorry, but that’s a thing that I refuse to do.

I know that a lot of this confusion and hostility is because of unfamiliarity – because people still aren’t used to seeing assistance dogs, and especially not assistance dogs that aren’t the labradors that organisations like Guide Dogs exclusively use. Virginia is a small cavoodle; there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed, sometimes, that I have such a fashionable dog but her breed is perfect for this kind of work – loyal, affectionate (even to a fault), smart without being highly strung, and with the added bonus of fur that doesn’t shed. I chose her for these reasons (and because she was undersized, the runt of her litter, which I figured we both had in common). But any kind of dog can do this kind of work – in the organisation we are working with, there are German shepherds, greyhounds, ridgebacks, terriers, even a chihuahua or two. None of these look the way people assume an assistance dog should.

Strangers ask me often, who are you training her for? And I used to answer, slowly and carefully, that the system works slightly differently for these kinds of dogs, that they train with their handlers, and a trainer, from the beginning rather than being raised by volunteers like Guide Dogs are. But now I just say, “for me”, and have to stop myself from adding, “that’s right, this here is what crazy looks like”.

Here are some of the things that assistance dogs can do: they can let their handler know when they’re on the edge of a panic attack or dissociative attack, because they can smell changes in the hormone content of their sweat, and then they can take their handler somewhere safe, or offer them tactile comfort. They can alert their handler if they’re about to faint or have a seizure. They can find their handler’s friends in a crowd, or wake them from the night-terror dreams that are common in people with PTSD. They can intervene in the sensory meltdowns that people on the autism spectrum often experience, or put pressure on specific parts of the body to assist with bio-feedback, with bringing the heart rate or breathing back under control. They can be an anchor, or a buffer, or just one thing at least that has your back. Unless, of course, someone distracts them (it surprised me, and still does, how many people try to distract Virginia, clapping on their knees or making kissy-noises or clicking their tongues, swooping in for a pat or trying to get her to play. It’s spectacularly unhelpful, and sometimes downright dangerous).

The problem isn’t that I’m unhappy explaining these things, even to strangers, or that I’m uncomfortable. I’m not. I speak and write often about mental illness and my own conditions because I think it is important, because I know first-hand how damaging silence and stigma can be, how the shame I felt about my illness kept me from even recognising it for what it was for years. And I know that I’m the “right” kind of crazy – unthreatening, and a little kooky, sure, but by and large adhering to social mores and saving most of my meltdowns for when I’m at home or on my own. I know it’s easier for me to speak, that is, than it is for many other people in my situation, and that almost always the people who are asking questions are genuinely curious.

It’s just that it gets exhausting. And I’m sick of people talking to me about my disability aid, instead of just talking to me.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 18, 2019 8:11 pm

    Wow. It must be nice to get some actual ‘healthcare’… What planet is this happening on?

    Ahhh –
    Planet Australia –

    Can I get a dog to sort out the criminals that turn up at my home?


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