20 October, 2015

Let me just wax lyrical for a bit…

Sometimes, at night, I go sit outside and look at my sheep. I generally take a length of acrylic fleece to use as a shepherd’s plaid what with I haven’t had the chance to make one from my sheep. Maybe in 2017. There is something magical about nights at the onset of winter here in the Piedmont, when the cold breaks the hazy humidity of summer. There’s so many stars in the sky, and if I trouble myself to go out back of the barn on a moonless night where the glare from our “safety light” doesn’t reach, I can see the Milky Way.

Anyway. I sit, wrapped in my fleece, and I watch my sheep sleep with Xita beside me. It’s magical. Times like that, you can almost feel a kinship with pre-industrial shepherds. Indeed, when it’s just the Soays out sleeping next to the hay bale, I can almost feel the first Neolithic shepherds beside me. THey’d probably appreciate modern touches like acrylic fleece and my very fine German Shepherd. Some things have changed very little over the millenia, and shepherds and farmers appreciate a good dog and warm, durable fabric.

It’s on nights like that as much as on slaughter days that I remember why I have animals, why I eat the meat they produce and take their manure to grow vegetables. It’s a very fundamental connection to the land and to the past that nourishes the soul along with the body.

16 September, 2015

11 September, 2015

Like God’s Own Mercy

O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of my favorite movies, and it gives the devil the best line in it. He has the heroes apparently cornered, and out behind to rain. “Sweet, summer rain,” he says. “Like God’s own mercy.” As I’m writing this, my little corner of the world has just wrapped up three or four weeks without rain. Things were getting scary dry out there except under the heaviest of layers of fallen leaves under complete tree canopies, where the sunlight never touches except in winter.

We lost an expected month of grazing to the hot, dry weather. We rotate the sheep, goats, and now pigs through three different areas, so that each one gets at least four weeks to recover between bouts of grazing. With the lack of rain, however, the next one in line couldn’t recover in time, so we’ve moved them to what will effectively be their winter dry lot already. They’re not complaining since they have plenty of hay and the area is well-shaded by oaks and the barn, allowing them to beat the August heat. I’d have been happier with them getting some last green forage in, though.

After the weeks and weeks of heat, baking the previous topsoil to dust after the more tender ground covers died, this rain really does feel like mercy. I’m not ashamed, just mildly sheepish, to admit I went outside to let it fall on my skin and listen to what I swear was a collective sigh of relief from the world at large. I swear the trees were smiling if you watched closely enough, and maybe the beech out front will decide to hang onto those last few leaves.

I’m looking forward to seeing one last burst of green before the summer ends, and to finally getting my fall crops into damp, welcoming soil. I’m happy I won’t have to water the grounding rods for the electric fence for at least a few days (the forecast says yet more rain! It feels slightly decadent). I’m looking forward to seeing the pigs wallow in mud instead of taking dust baths, leaving what my friend Elisha calls “mud angels” behind.

The fall rains are such a nice way to round out the year, at least until the weather gets cold and things start feeling clammy. It’s one last burst of activity from people and plants alike before we enter the long dark cold of winter. It’s the last opportunity for animals to fatten themselves up, something less urgent for my domesticated livestock than it is for rabbits, birds, and squirrels…yet the impulse is still there. The goats are growing longer, thicker coats. The hair sheep are getting woolly, and the wool sheep are getting woolier.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to break out the seeds and the trowel, though. For tonight, I’m happy to lie back and listen to the sound of mercy.

13 September, 2012

In love with dirt, or: Becoming the Fungus Fairy

One of the amazing things about my life is the amazing people in it. Today I got a package of fungus spores from Bountiful Gardens (along with some seeds I had also ordered). These two things are intimately connected.

My friend Gowan, you see, is a Horticultural Oracle, and a great gift she has given me is to share her love of dirt.

Most of us don’t think to much about the dirt, really. It’s there, the plants grow in it and we walk on it, and some things burrow through it, but mostly we fail to appreciate that dirt is not a dead and inert mass of decayed organic matter and pulverized rock and whatever minerals are leached out of the rain. It’s a ginormous organism, teeming with life. Macro organisms like earthworms are there, sure, but also micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, that work together with plants to make plants healthier and more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil and putting nutrients into soil. Beneath our feet are entire worlds.

Conventional farming kills these tiny, complex worlds. The plowing and harrowing and tilling break up the delicate networks of micorrhizae, expose tender bacteria to ultraviolet light from the sun and the drying air above ground. We plant our crops in soil impoverished by the death and destruction of the soil organisms, and as a result end up having to drench them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So here I am with a back acre that was denuded of topsoil a decade or two ago by a rapacious former owner, goats and chickens to feed, and the excellent guidance of a Horticultural Oracle to lead me on my way. In hand I have packets of seeds — legumes, vetches, grasses — and packets of soil organisms. Also, I have a steady and reliable supply of chicken and goat manure, along with their used bedding, which is working on becoming compost (with help from the chickens themselves). But it would take a lot more compost than I’ve got to get the back acre turned from a desolate wasteland of thorny brush and invasive trash pines into good forage for the critters, hence the seeds and spores.

The goats have done a magnificent job of clearing away what dead growth there was and pruning back the pine trees until the plants that are there could get some sunshine. The chickens did some loosening of the soil surface but not enough, so I cheated and got my neighbor to run over the naked bits with his tiller just this once, so that my seeds and spores wouldn’t just slide off the compacted surface of the clay at the first rain. The chickens, helpfully, have been going over the tilled areas and breaking the big clumps of soil up, and also pooping and then tilling that into the soil for me, so there’s little pockets of plant nutrition here and there.

After this Saturday, the poor chickens will lose their liberty for a while. Hopefully I will sell off all the spare bantams, and then the chickens will be confined to quarters so that I can go traipsing through the tilled bits of the back acre, scattering seeds and spores and water without being followed by mob of ravenous feathery beasts intent on snarfing down my precious seeds. After that, it’s up to the seeds, the spores, and the good Lord’s inclination to give me lots of sunshine but just enough rain to germinate the little buggers. By springtime, it is entirely possible that the blighted back acre will be well on its way to an accelerated recovery of topsoil, helped along by the application of extra compost when available and deposits of used goat bedding and fallen leaves from the oak trees. With grace, the dead areas will turn green with clover and vetch and grasses and brassicas, and once the plant life is mature enough that it’s no longer primarily water, the goats and chickens will be turned loose to devour and turn the greenery into more compost, which will decay there on the dirt and provide food for yet more plants.

Some day, I may even be able to look back at that acre and see a pasture of amazing rich forage with nearly entirely recovered soil, and I won’t need to monitor it as religiously for a need for another application of seed or spores. All because Gowan shared with me a love of dirt.

16 March, 2012

Big changes coming.

Which is slightly terrifying because seriously, I tend to not do well with big change. It usually engenders feelings of panic and crankiness and general flailitude in me, and this whole employment thing is no different.

But anyhow, two weeks from today I will no longer be employed. The current plan is for me to finish this semester, take the summer off, then go finish my associate’s degree in the fall. After that, I can transfer to the local 4-year university and finish my bachelor’s, and after that, presumably, I will find gainful employment again.

It’s pretty terrifying, I will admit, but at the same time I feel incredibly blessed that we’re in a position for me to do it. In fact, this whole thing feels kind of like God’s way of saying “Look, you’ve been whining about wanting to finish your bachelor’s degree for years now, lady. GO DO IT. HERE IS YOUR CHANCE.”

In less terrifying changes, this evening I will hopefully pick up two registered Nigerian Dwarf goats, both does, from dairy lines. They’ll be ready to breed next month, and I will probably breed one of them for a fall baby (and milking!) and then breed the other one in fall for a spring baby (and covering our spring/summer milk needs). Since there will be electric netting protecting the goats from predators, once they’ve taken down the brush in a significant area and created more of a pasture, I want to free-range some egg-laying chickens. Really I’m feeling rather homesteady; we’ve got three garden beds planted and one more to do, and I’ve asked the Best Mother Ever for a pressure canner for my birthday so that I can put away some of what we grow without having to pickle everything. It’s as if, since I won’t be providing for the family via working outside the home, I feel like I have to provide with milk and eggs and home-canned, home-grown vegetables.

I am, however, feeling strangely optimistic. Yes, it’s scary that we won’t have health insurance, but I am excited to take the summer off for the first time since I was a teenager. I’m looking forward to finding out what I can do and how much better I’ll feel if I don’t have to get up at 0400 every morning so I can leave for work early enough that traffic isn’t too horrendous on the way home. And I’m really, really glad that I’ll finally have time for all my zillion hobbies: spinning, knitting, dyeing, making soap, &c &c &c.

26 November, 2011

On the inevitable self-comparisons of dog training

So I’m having a lot of guilty feelings surrounding Sid lately, mostly because I have a lot of really fantastic dogblogs in my feed reader, like Katie at Save the Pit Bull, Save the World and the Food Lady over at Wootube.

Why does this cause me guilty feelings about Sid? These people are fantastic trainers, and have worked their dogs in agility, obedience, flyball — they have dogs with TITLES. Like Katie’s eeevil red dog, who is ARCHX Siren’s Eleusinian Mystery CD CD-H RA RL3 RLV RL2X RL1X CGC TT.

Meanwhile, Siddy, despite being brilliant and brave and willing, is just Blackthorn’s Obsidian.

This is, I realize, totally irrational. Siddy doesn’t care if he never gets the entire alphabet after his name, what he cares about is whether he gets to go places with his person and take care of her. But I keep feeling that I am letting him down, because if I was a more systematic and dedicated trainer, he definitely could have a pile of titles. He is smart, willing, and has heart and courage in spades (along with a large helping of goofy sense of humor and general good nature). In the hands of a trainer who would, say, work through the Levels with him in an organized fashion, he could be out there in the rally obedience ring no problem. Well, small problem in that his handler would have to use her cane and some speed changes would be impossible for us — does rally require anything faster than a quick-step gimp? I have no idea but if so, it’s a no-go — but no problem in the dog’s ability or capacity.

The problem is that I have this deep and weird aversion to competing in things like obedience, and that systematically working behaviors in the backyard here at home is also not the most thrilling thing ever for me. I put Sid’s public access foundations on him here at home, but as soon as he was cleared to work and I was 95% certain of his ability to not be a total dork in public, we took our show on the road. It was more interesting for both of us, that way.

And I don’t know why I feel like we ought to be doing structured competition obedience and the like. I mean, both competition trainers and I put hundreds of hours of work into teaching our dogs, but for, say, a rally obedience dog all that work culminates in an event in the rally ring that takes, what, 10 minutes? 15? Whereas the pinnacle of Sid’s achievements thus far was working for four hours straight at the state fair, in crowds of people, amid fascinating smells, new noises, with occasional livestock. He worked for two hours at the National Museum of the Marine Corps on Veteran’s Day, where he handled immersive videos featuring machine gun fire and screaming, several new floors that were cold and metal and wobbled and made noise under foot, drastic temperature changes between rooms (the Chosin Valley room is heavily air conditioned, the Viet Nam room is heated), people using wheelchairs, people using canes, and a taxidermy German Shepherd (that one really weirded him out but he didn’t make a fuss).

It makes me sad that he will never get official recognition for these things, that because of my aversion to the competition field, no one will ever give Sid a big bright ribbon or a shiny trophy. There are no organizations that officially sanction the titling of service dogs in the work they do, although if there were he’d surely have his PA (Public Access) and SDN (Service Dog Novice) and be well on his way to SDA (Service Dog Advanced) with an eye to his SDE (Service Dog Excellent) before the end of 2012. Or maybe, given the wide variety of tasks that service dogs do, we’d have to break up the titles to specify the work he does, and so take the “S” off and replace it with an “M” for Mobility. Which would then give us the opportunity to, say, work on him getting his Wheel Dog titles if I decide to use a wheelchair.

I don’t actually know where I’m going with this, except to say that I recognize that it’s irrational to simultaneously want applause for Sid’s good work and also people to ignore him when we’re out in public. But it sure would be nice to get a big bright ribbon to recognize all our hard work, you know?

29 August, 2011

I feel like I can fly when I stand next to you…

Can I take a minute to be mildly serious? Sure? You guys are the best gentle readers, seriously.

So anyway I was reading Dog Is My Co-Pilot, which is a collection of essays by Dog People of various types, and one of the authors made a comment about being a service dog handler — said it was “humbling in the best possible way.” And you know, nobody elected me Spokesperson For All Handlers Everywhere; for one thing if they were electing a spokesperson they probably would not want someone who has a tendency to swear like a sailor (hey, I was one!) when she gets frustrated. Also probably someone not quite so covered in dog and cat hair, with the odd bit of chicken fluff stuck to her. Spokespeople are supposed to look respectable, after all.

But I digress. I read that bit, and I thought, “I wonder if this person is a service dog handler.” I mean, I don’t know. Maybe she is, and that is how she experiences her relationship with her working dog. Maybe she has friends who are handlers, who have expressed to her that they experience their relationship with their service dogs. Like I said, I don’t know — not about her disability status or her SD handler status or any of it.

What I do know is that in terms of my relationship with my service dog, she got it totally wrong in every conceivable way.

Let me tell you a little bit about my disability, so you have the background. I have chronic pain and balance issues, which looks short and simple there on the page. The reality is, you know that one time? When you did a LOT of physical labor maybe, or took your workout a lot farther than you were ready for, or your first week or so in boot camp? Remember not that evening, but the next day, when you woke up and tried to get out of bed and every muscle in your body screamed a protest and it took you forever to be able to move without screaming/crying/swearing a lot (according to your particular temperament)? That’s what the phrase “chronic pain” covers. That day. Only it’s every day. The balance issues are like being out to sea again with the Navy, underway at about 25 knots at sea state 4. For those of you who have never been stationed on a destroyer, it may help if I tell you that when we first started having the earthquake last week, I thought it was me.

When I use a cane to compensate for the balance issues, I feel as if I’m creeping along, feeling my way through a world that is not steady. I have to tilt myself toward the cane, lest I wobble away from it. I can gimp along at a pretty respectable speed, but I’m always kind of watching where my feet are going.

When I’m with Sid, I can fly. We become, on the best days, a strange six-legged beast with one working vestibular system between us. He’s still young, still learning, but generally sharp as a tack. I can walk upright, because when I wobble toward him he moves closer to get under me, and when I wobble away, he moves out to pull me back into straight. He watches our feet so I don’t have to, so I am head up and walking tall through the world.[1] My posture is actually better, working with Sid, than it is with a cane or ever was walking on just my own feet. He provides a dose of momentum, something for me to brace against, which obscurely makes it easier to walk.

And, of course, he is my ever-present partner in crime. We share a laugh in a look, we have small disagreements[4], we discuss the route to take and say thank you to each other. We like to sit in the sunshine and people-watch. When I am having horrible vertigo and sitting down, he will obligingly lay his front end across my lap, steadying me. He gives me beautiful smiles as we walk together, partners together in the world. We are joyful about the fact that we’re together, we have each other, him watching out for me and me making sure that we don’t cross pavement that will burn his paws and that doors don’t shut on his tail.

I am not humbled by working with Sid. Instead, I am freed by it — I go fast! I walk at speeds I walked at back before all the pain and the vertigo, and I do it safely and without fear of falling. It is joyful and joyous and liberating and far, far from humbling me — it lifts me up.

[1] This is not infallible. Today at Walmart he walked me into a 5 gallon bucket. Twice. He took me around it each time on the reattempt, but still. I suspect it was revenge-motivated because I would not let him steal the “Caution Wet Floor” sign on our way in[2]. Today was not, as you might have gathered, our best day.

[2] Yes I know it probably wasn’t. But it’s funnier that way. Bear with me. I did let him “steal” a toy from PetCo later to make up for my cruelty at Walmart, mostly because I am trying to get him accustomed to carrying things in his mouth while in harness so he can carry my gun.[3]

[3] I’m kidding. And I’ll stop footnoting now.

[4] I lied about the footnoting thing. There was this one time when we went to a wine tasting with Daniel and Daniel’s sister R. I tasted eleven wines and two flavors of wine slushie, and our pourer was very generous, giving us 1/4 to 1/3 a glass at a time. Coming out, Sid refused to take me the shortest way to the car, which involved walking across grass, and instead stuck to the sidewalk. And then when I asked him to speed up, he gave me a look that loosely translated to “No, you idiot.” Or possibly, “Have you been taking drugs your doctor did NOT prescribe?”

27 March, 2011

The naming of dogs is a difficult matter: the conclusion

I registered Sid today, as Blackthorn’s Obsidian, after much thinking and even probably over-thinking. But I do like my dogs to have strong names that suit them, and I generally don’t name a dog lightly, no matter what Tink’s name suggests!

So despite the fact that Christine may laugh at me for reading too much into her kennel name, I’m really pleased with the way Blackthorn and Obsidian go together.

From Druidry.org’s page on Blackthorn:

According to John Matthews, the message of Blackthorn is “Magic is Everywhere”. . .Blackthorn is used for purification, as well as protection, ridding the atmosphere of negative energy. It deals with issues on a Karmic level, which cannot be avoided. Meditating on Blackthorn can purify our minds of negative thoughts and impulses at the deepest level of our psyche. It can aid us in combating fear, depression and anger.

And then, of course, we have obsidian itself:

Obsidian is truth-enhancing. A strongly protective stone, it forms a shield against negativity. It blocks psychic attack and absorbs negative energies from the environment. Obsidian draws out mental stress and tension. It stimulates growth on all levels, urging exploration of the unknown and opening new horizons. Brings clarity to the mind and clears confusion. Helps you to know who you truly are. Obsidian dissolves emotional blockages and ancient traumas. Promotes qualities of compassion and strength.

Obsidian aids the digestion and detoxifies. It reduces arthritis pain, joint problems and cramps. Warms the extremities.

Black Obsidian is a very powerful and creative stone. It increases self-control. It forces facing up to one’s true self. Releases imbalances and negative energies. Black Obsidian is protective and provides support during change. It repels negativity and disperses unloving thoughts. (Source)

My Siddymonster has a strong name, that nicely captures the more metaphysical aspects of his service doggery. Currently my hairy talisman is asleep next to my chair, unaware that a momentous event has occurred and he has an Official Name forever and ever, now. He’s got a lot of name to live up to, but he’ll do it just fine. At almost 9 months old, he’s showing flashes of the adult dog he will be: steady, utterly loyal, smart, thoughtful, and careful. It’s a beautiful thing, watching him grow up.

18 March, 2011

On Dogs and Shoes

So a couple people I love and respect have brought up to me that they think the Shoe Analogy is problematic, because it compares dogs to inanimate objects and they don’t feel that dogs should be treated like things. Rather than continue to address everyone one at a time, and assuming that there are others out there who feel the same way but don’t trust me enough to approach me, I thought I’d clarify.

Despite the fact that I usually sound sort of flippant, I actually thought long and hard about the Shoe Analogy. Because (as I hope anyone reading my blog would realize) I do not advocate treating dogs like inanimate, disposable objects. I would hope, reading the way I write about my dogs, and dogs in general, and for that matter cats and chickens and Jeremiah Swakhammer the Eastern Box Turtle, that people come away with the sense that I cherish each one of these little beings whose lives are basically in my hands.

But I needed to find an analogy that able-bodied people would understand. Something almost everyone uses and would not dream of going out without for fear of getting hurt, getting sick, or just being really uncomfortable. Something so commonplace that unless the person is making an effort, no one remarks upon it. Something people of all genders use, so that no one would feel left out. That’s when I hit upon shoes.

Stop and think for a minute about your shoes. Odds are that unless you have problems that require special shoes, or spend a lot of time on your feet, you hardly think of them. So let’s pause for a second and consider all that the humble, taken-for-granted shoe does. A good sensible shoe lets you go anywhere you need to go. It protects you from harmful or just uncomfortable surfaces, it supports your arches so you don’t get weird random leg and back pain, some of them will even go the extra mile and support your ankles, too. Your shoes let you get up and get out of the house without having to think about where you’re putting your feet constantly, without having to ask if you can make it into the dog food store because there’s a ton of unshaded black pavement lying under the summer sun between you and a 30lb bag of grain-free kibble. Your shoes, in a very fundamental way, set you free.

And it says something about the way I think, the number of my friends who have disabilities that affect their mobility, the problems I deal with in regard to my own pain and balance issues, that I didn’t say legs instead of shoes. I could have. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone walking around and followed them to stare at their legs? (The right answer is “never” because otherwise YOU ARE CREEPY.) When was the last time you approached some random person in a store and were all “Wow, you have legs! I have legs! I had these great legs when I was a kid, I got a matched set the day I was born! Hey, can I feel your legs?”

But in my world, among my friends, legs are not reliable. My legs certainly aren’t, and I have a number of friends whose legs also cannot be depended upon. There are two things that make it possible for me to get out of the house: my mobility aid (the dog when possible, my cane when not) and my shoes. One holds me upright, the other keeps me from getting tetanus. So legs really and truly didn’t occur to me until I started writing this post. And before people object to me comparing a service dog to a cane — that’s the dog’s job. To be an infinitely superior cane, who will keep me from falling over whether I wobble left or right, who gives me a point of balance that I never have to lift up to move along with my feet. When I’m working Beowulf, when Sid gets old enough and well-trained enough, the dog is my cane. He is also my friend, companion, confidant, and adventuring sidekick, a pair of inquiring brown eyes, a wet nose nudged into my hand, a big heart (they both have huge hearts). He is not a pair of shoes, but I don’t know any other experience that I share with you, able-bodied gentle reader, than a good pair of shoes.

So, y’know, to those of you who found the shoe analogy problematic — stop for a minute. Remember whose blog you’re reading. Read what I actually wrote, which does not advocating treating dogs like shoes except insofar as everyone ignores shoes.

Let me close my quoting my beloved friend s. e. smith:

Access is a twofold issue: 1. You need to actually be able to access spaces safely (don’t pet the dog, don’t offer the dog food, don’t try to talk to you where you are in the middle of a task) and 2. You need to feel welcome and safe in public (don’t point and stare). Access is not just a physical need, it’s also an emotional one, and it’s possible to feel welcome and safe without being physically able to access, or to be able to physically access but feel very unwelcome. Being looked at like some sort of strange alien…yeah.

14 March, 2011

Service Dog Etiquette for Dog Lovers

A friend of mine asked after my rant about adults trying to pet Siddy while he’s in his vest, “Is there ever an appropriate time to pet a working dog in a vest or harness? Like when you’re just hanging around?” And I immediately started kicking myself, because in my rant I didn’t really mention what people SHOULD do if they’d like to pet the dog, just ranted a lot about what they should not do. Bad trainer, me.

Unfortunately there’s no way for me to let people down gently because the only safe answer is “No, there is never an appropriate time to ask to pet a working dog.” There’s a lot of reasons for this, and I’ll detail them below from my own experience using Beowulf (in dog-accessible places since his Public Access Skills aren’t up to snuff for things like restaurants and grocery stores and other REALLY HIGH-DISTRACTION areas) and Sid’s training outing.

1) You can’t tell by looking at someone what that person’s disability may be. Sure, it may look like the dog is just lying down hanging out while its handler waits for the waiter to bring her coffee and spinach quiche, but the dog may be a diabetic or seizure alert dog, or a hearing dog. These dogs need to have their attention focused on their handlers, which they can easily do while lying down next to a chair.

2) While to you it may just look like I’m hanging around, in fact I might have just gotten that hazelnut coffee I’ve wanted all day and settled into this comfy chair at Panera with my coffee and a spinach quiche, and I’m looking forward to some quiet people-watching time. You can’t tell by looking at me whether or not I want to talk to a stranger, or particularly whether I want to talk to the 800th stranger that day who wants to pet my dog. And what looks to you like we’re taking a break and my dog just nudged me so I’d pet him may in fact be my dog alerting me when I fogged out as he was trained to do, and I’m not really in a state to be coherent with a stranger yet.

3) If I let you pet my dog in public, I’ve just taught you and everyone watching that it’s OK to pester service dog handlers about petting their dogs. For all I know, you’re the big dork who is going to ask the next service dog handler you see, and when you’re told “no” you will whip out the “But other people let me do it!” line and then I’m the annoying service dog handler teaching people bad habits.

4) If I let you pet my dog while he’s in harness, I am blurring the line for him between “Working, must concentrate on my person” and “not working, I can be sociable with strangers.” Because I am using my dog to help me stay upright, I can’t take the chance that he may learn that it’s OK to schmooze people while he’s working and veer towards the next clueless person to make a smoochy noise at him. Letting you pet him while he’s working, even if we’re both taking a break, may lead directly to a situation that seriously endangers my safety.

5) I’m probably really, really, really tired at that point of people approaching me and asking about the dog, trying to distract the dog, expecting me to stop what I’m doing and educate them about the dog and about disability, asking me to reveal my medical problems to them because of the dog, or generally treating me like I’m invisible or have the dog with me for a conversation piece or I’m an evil gatekeeper to the dog just out to stop them from having an innocent good time fondling him. I’m just trying to get the things I need to do accomplished, to live my life, and people who will ignore the dog and treat a handler like a dogless human being are few and far between. By asking to pet the dog, you are putting yourself firmly in the camp of “people who don’t treat me like a real human being because of the dog.”

Let me try to tell you what using a service dog part-time has been like for me, using as an analogy something most everybody uses: shoes. You have a pair of shoes. They are the first shoes you have ever found that fit like they were made just for your feet and are really nice-looking shoes. In these shoes, you can go about your whole day and your feet and back and legs feel great and never get tired. In these shoes, you can conquer the whole damn world.

There’s just one problem with the shoes. They attract attention. The first couple of times people smiled at you and said “Nice shoes” it was pretty flattering, but then things started getting a little out of hand. People would stare at your shoes, wherever you went, in a way that made you feel like you were nothing but a way of displaying your wonderful shoes. People would approach you while you’re just trying to buy some milk at the store and get out and go home and expect you to tell them where you got the shoes, how the shoes are working out for you, and then listen to them tell you all about their favorite shoes. Disturbingly, some people will ask to touch your shoes. Sometimes they are still standing when they ask, but other times they are asking as they kneel down and reach out for your shoes. REALLY disturbingly, some people just lunge for your shoes without even asking. Once or twice, you’ve nearly tripped and fallen because someone was grabbing for your shoes. When you act alarmed that these people are trying to take your shoes away while you’re walking in them, people respond by being defensive and angry. Why would you be wearing such wonderful shoes, after all, if you didn’t want to let people touch them or you didn’t want to talk about them? Can’t you see how much they want to touch your fabulous shoes? Why are you being so mean by denying them something they want so much?

When you’re out and about, nobody talks to you about anything but your shoes. You might be in a class you’re really excited to take, because you want to meet other people who are interested in the subject matter, but the other students and the instructor just want to talk to you about your shoes. Even worse, they assume that your shoes are all you know about and act totally surprised when you speak up about things that are not shoe-related. When you ask for help in a shop, the person you’re talking to addresses your shoes rather than you. People say “good morning” to your shoes. People assume that you won’t be able to do things because you won’t want to get your shoes dirty, or you can’t do them because your shoes are not their idea of appropriate footwear for the activity, and they inform you of these exclusions as if you’re supposed to be grateful.

What you’re actually grateful for is the one or two people every day who treat you just like your shoes are nothing remarkable. You come to cherish the people who act as if they don’t even see your shoes. And despite the fact that you love your wonderful shoes, you begin to deeply, deeply wish you could find another pair of shoes that did not attract all this attention that worked for you, but no matter how many pairs you try on, you never can. You find some shoes that are kinda workable and sometimes you wear those just to avoid all the problems with your favorite shoes, even though you know that by the end of the day your feet and legs and back will be aching. After enough painful days, you start feeling pretty bitter towards all the people who make your life so much harder when you’re wearing your favorite shoes, because if they’d just be polite, it would make such a huge difference to you.

So what should you do when you see wonderful shoesa service dog and its handler? The answer is easy: ignore the dog. No matter how much you want to talk about the dog, touch the dog, ask the dog’s handler questions about the dog, tell the dog’s handler about your own dog — don’t. Treat the handler exactly like you are busy treating all the people in the world who do not have dogs with them. If you have a customer service job, or you actually need (not just want) to approach the dog handler, speak to the person, not the dog. Ignore the dog, no matter how hard it is for you. A service dog is not “just” a dog, to its handler it’s a trusted partner and a vital part of what its handler needs to get through the world. Remember too that service dog handlers deserve privacy about their medical issues just as much as everyone else, and asking “Why do you have the dog?” or “what does the dog do for you?” is exactly like asking “So, will you tell me about all your medical problems?” (i.e. none of your business).

The people I am going to happily let pet my service dog are the ones who see me and the dog when the dog is off-duty. In other words, my friends and family, people who might come to my house and hang out, or at whose house I might hang out long enough to ask if I could let my dog be off work, as it were. These are people I know pretty well, obviously. If you’re not one of those people, if you only see me and my dog in public situations, then I’m sorry but no. You can’t pet my dog, and you need to be OK with that.

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