Invisible disabilities

The Invisible Disabilities Association defines invisible disabilities as a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities and is invisible to the onlooker.

YOU’RE AT WALMART. You see a dog wearing a vest that says “service dog in training”. You’re a dog lover, so you start talking to the dog and approach to pet her. Here’s the thing – the person on the other end of the leash is likely to be:

  • The owner of the dog and the person with a disability and she is owner-training her service dog
  • The owner of the dog who has a child with a disability (sometimes parents train alone, sometimes with their child) and she is owner-training the dog
  • A service dog trainer
  • A puppy raiser for a service dog organization

Whichever – the dog is training to help someone with a disability. That means the dog needs to focus on her handler. She has to learn to ignore everything EXCEPT her handler and that include you.

When a service dog in training is working (in this case public access training at Walmart IS the dog’s job), distracting the dog is not only rude but can cause the person on the other end of the leash at best, great discomfort since you’re the umpteenth well-meaning person to approach today. At worst, you may be unintentionally causing a person with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury to completely freeze up, lose focus, even bolt from the store when the anxiety is too great. Or what about a person whose balance is an issue or they have a seizure or heart disorder.

Here’s an example of a team you might run across. Meet Allison and her service dog in training, Peabody.

Allison’s diagnosis is multiple sclerosis. She has a laundry list of symptoms. Some days she’s feeling well and has what appears to be a “normal” life. Other days she’s bedridden. She never looks for sympathy. She works harder than anyone I know at training her own service dog. Peabody goes everywhere with Allison and is learning the very hard lesson that her focus needs to be 100% on her mom. Peabody is learning to recognize when Allison isn’t well and that it’s her job to take care of her. She can’t learn that focus, that constant attention to her owner – when people interrupt them.

Why, I wonder, would a complete stranger approach a person with service dog? Is it because they’re unfamiliar with service dogs and the jobs they do? Is it because they think that if the dog’s in public it’s their right to pet the dog? Is it because they have not a thought in their head except: that dog’s SO cute?

Maybe we have to change our collective mindset. If you see a dog who’s wearing a vest, put on your polite pants, drag out your common sense, and step aside. Admire the dog from a distance. Don’t make kissy noises or stare at the dog or start telling a story about YOUR dog. Seriously, people do that all the time and they need to stop it!

And if, by chance, you come upon a dog wearing a vest that says “ask to pet me”, by all means, ask. Otherwise, don’t.

Puppies start their service dog training early. This 4-month-old puppy is training with his boy and mom and absolutely MUST maintain his focus.


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