So many people just do not understand the concept of a service dog. I keep telling myself that this is the issue, not just a general lack of etiquette and social awareness. I try very hard to use every less than perfect interaction as a learning and teaching experience and as a model for Micah. There are times that this is incredibly difficult because people can be rude, intrusive and insensitive when they see a service dog. I know that I have a mouth that sometimes my wife would prefer was increasingly familiar with duct tape, but I stand up for my son and now for Levi.
Don’t get me wrong – the majority of people whom we encounter during any public access training are respectful, accommodating and kind. We have had plenty of people who look at Levi, smile and watch us pass. Several times, I have heard parents explain to their children, from toddler to teen, to stay away from the dog because he is working and should not be distracted. I have had people apologize for passing by us, to which I explain that it is great for Levi to have to practice staying focused on his handler and ignore others.
Unfortunately, there are also folks who are either uneducated, willingly ignorant or intentionally reckless regarding service dogs. In our short time working on public access with Levi, we have encountered each of these. Sometimes, people can be uninformed and that could lead to insensitivity. Early in Levi’s tenure with us, Micah, Levi and I were outside in our cul de sac – Micah was playing with other neighborhood children while Levi and I sat nearby. One of our neighbors had recently hired a new after school sitter (who also happened to be a substitute teacher in our district) for her children who was also outside. She came over to speak with me and try to pet Levi. To her credit, when I told her he was a Service Dog in Training, she did not try again to pet him. However, she did ask, while 7-8 of the children were standing within earshot, “Why does Micah need a service dog? What’s wrong with him? What will he do for him?” Micah had already had issues will bullying this year and asking, “What’s wrong with him?” in front of a gaggle of elementary and middle schoolers was rude and insensitive. Even when we do not think they are listening, children hear everything (except when we give them instructions, of course). My response was probably less polite than it should have been since I was frustrated and protective. I curtly told her, “Nothing is wrong with him. He has several diagnoses with which Levi will help.” Wisely, she dropped the subject.
One day, our family visited the local Tractor Supply looking for gypsum. As soon as we walked in, an employee came right up to Levi and tried to pet him. Tractor Supply is well known for allowing pets of all ilk, so I understand the desire to pet a cute dog, but Levi always wears a SDiT vest when out in the world. We asked that he not interact with the dog because he was working. The employee said, “Well, then you brought him to the wrong place!” Rather than engage with him, I asked him to point me to his manager. His manager was aghast and told us that employee was a retired official for the County’s Animal Control. She assured me she would address the issue with him immediately.
Further into his training, Levi and I were working on public access training at Target while Micah was in therapy. Target employees have clearly been well trained as they are always kind and polite. Unfortunately, we encountered two teenage boys, one of whom was barking and growling at Levi. To Levi’s credit, he completely ignored this jackass. I did not behave as well. I yelled at him, “Hey! You think you are cute, don’t you? Do you realize that you could have been putting someone’s life in danger by trying to distract a service dog? Do you realize that a distracted service dog might miss a cue that could keep someone from getting severely injured or killed? The teen said, “Whatever man!” – which did not help my frustration level. So I held up my phone and added, “Do you realize that interfering with a tasking service dog is a crime?” He froze. “Not so cute now, are you?”
Another day, our family visited a local sports park for the batting cages, driving range and mini-golf. As we walked up the sidewalk, an employee immediately started yelling at us that they did not allow dogs and that she wasn’t dealing with anymore poop. We said, “We understand you do not allow pets, however, this is a service dog in training which must be permitted by law.” She was not swayed at all. She continued to yell that dogs were not allowed and that if it is a service dog, she needed to see his “papers” or we had to leave. Oh boy. Talk about a trigger word in the world of service dogs. Since we are so new to the SD world, this was more a trigger for my lawyer side. But it triggered big time. We had made it into the clubhouse at this point, so my family went outside, and I turned back to give this woman my undivided attention. I curtly told her that she needed to stop yelling at me and that there is no such thing as legitimate “papers,” no proof is required at all and that she may ask me the two questions permitted by Federal law and no more. She was adamant that if we were to be allowed to stay with Levi, her manager told her that she must see his “papers.”
I admit, sometimes, I take immense joy in using the law to put someone deserving squarely in their place and remind them that they are not an expert on the entire world. Here, I had the opportunity to have fun AND stand up for my kid – does it get any more enjoyable? I asked her if she was denying us access to the facility that we would otherwise be permitted to use because we had a service dog? She said, “Only if you can’t show me papers.” Oh boy!
I took a deep breath, calmed myself and said, “It seems you are unaware of the Department of Justice requires that businesses allow service dogs anywhere their handler may legally be. It also says you may not ask me to provide any documentation proving he is a service dog. You may ask me two questions only. ‘Is he required because of a disability?’ and ‘What tasks has he been trained to perform?’ We do not need to provide any further information. You can check it out – it is Title 28 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 35 and 36. Would you like me to pull it up for you on my phone and let you read it?”
She continued yelling at me and saying she could not be expected to deal with this dog pooping and peeing all over the place and her manager insisted they ask for papers. I said, “Ma’am, your manager is incorrect, and I am happy to explain the law to both of you.” She was still adamant that she needed to see papers. I was frustrated. I explained that I knew this was a small, family owned business and by refusing us access she could be subjecting the owners to $75,000 civil penalty. Her response, “I don’t care. It’s their money, not mine.” My jaw dropped. I finally just said, “Ok, well, we will go hit balls and if you feel the need, you can call the police and have us removed.” She did not bother us anymore. But when I spoke to her manager the next day, he was appalled at her behavior, apologized profusely and promised to retrain all employees.
The manager’s reaction was exactly what it should have been and restored our faith in our favorite sports park. It was a much-needed reminder that there are many, many wonderful, understanding and respectful people in our world. While we will always have to deal with ignorance, we will be sure to be grateful for many people who just ignore us or give us a smile. It is easy to focus on the few negative nancies and forget that for every one unpleasant experience, we are having a hundred positive experiences – the ones where people do not interact at all or do so respectfully. To those amazing folks – thank you.