My first dog, a stray from the SPCA, loved kids, other dogs, watching TV, banana bread and the UPS delivery man who left her a cookie with each package. Her eyes lay somewhere under a shaggy mass of gray and white wiry hair, the white often times a dirty shade of gray. Jessie swam in puddles, rolled in dead stuff on the beach and hated baths. The scruffier she got, the more friends and strangers wanted to pet her. Though she was the ultimate Family Dog, I’d alert anyone asking to pet her that hand wipes might be needed.
The next dog to come home with me hailed from the same shelter but couldn’t have been more different. This German Shepherd cross had a smooth dark coat, my-what-big-ears-you-have ears and an ability to launch himself at the door to protect the house from the UPS delivery man and his invasion of packages. Sam’s swagger drew the attention of friends and strangers who wanted to lay a hand on this Big Dawg with Attitude. My response to the question of petting him: If you value your hands, keep them in your pockets.
Elsie is the first puppy I raised. Born on a farm full of Border Collie-somethings, she came with the energy, speed, curly fur and smarts of three dogs. Twelve years later, she’s still focused on tennis balls and belly rubs. And when the groomer shaves her explosion of fur into her summer ‘puppy cut,’ she becomes the quintessential Puppy Dog, like Pooh’s Tigger, bouncy and cute and waggy and harmless and oh-so-pettable. The answer to petting her comes with only one warning: She gives big, sloppy kisses.
All of the Above
A gentle giant with a deep, throaty bark that he saves solely for the UPS delivery man, Sir Thomas is a leaner, a drooler, and despite the debonair looks, a goofball. He is Family Dog, Big Dawg and Puppy Dog all rolled into one. But, above all, he is a Service Dog.
Why “No?” When a Service Dog is working, he’s an extension of his handler like another appendage or extra legs. In that respect, asking to pet him is asking to pet me. Not asking and simply reaching a hand toward his head is reaching a hand toward me. Society frowns on such invasions of personal space and so do I.
“No, He’s Working” This is my response even for the people whose touch I’m comfortable with, whom I greet regularly with a hug. If my Service Dog is sporting one of his working vests – which are designed to stand out: one is highlighter yellow, the other stop sign red – then he’s working. He needs to focus on his work because friend or stranger, a hand on him means his mind is not on me. If his mind is not on me, the extra legs won’t be helping me with balance, they’ll be throwing me off balance.
Maybe “Yes?” As we spend more and more time together, sometimes leaning on each other, sometimes blissfully oblivious to the needs he’s trained to meet, I’ve learned about trust.
When Sir Thomas first arrived home, No He’s Working became my mantra. It took time for me to get used to a constant four-legged cane, especially one whose head leveled out at the average height of most adult hands. It was enough to orchestrate the leash, Rights and Lefts and Whoas and Waits that allowing a pat into the mix was too much. Whether we shopped the aisles of the grocery store, stopped in to a café for tea, watched my son’s basketball game or simply stepped outside for a walk, I repeated to anyone who asked, No He’s Working.
What Sir Thomas has taught me to trust is myself. I’m learning just how much he wants to do what I want him to do. No isn’t the pat answer to patting, No is the answer when I choose because I need him. At times, it’s okay to answer yes. I trust that answer because I – not the patter or the pattee – choose it.
An example: After yoga class, where he’s been happily snoozing in his down-dog-stay, I’ll often reward him with a few friendly pats. First, I take inventory of whether I need his support at that moment. If not, I take the next step, which is to give him the Up command and let him know that we’re going to greet some people. Finally, I lead him to the individuals who asked to pet him.
I rely on him to do what I want and need from him. He trusts that I know what I want him to do, as though I’m the conductor and he’s the orchestra. Do we create beautiful music? Yes and No. Do we clash at times? Maybe. Are we learning and trying and getting used to our roles as Service Dog and Human with Service Dog? All of the Above.