Service dogs are silent, lovable heroes that assist people with disabilities.
For almost half my life, I have had a faithful companion by my side. I received “Steven” at the age of 11. He retired when I was matched with “Arianne” aka “Ari.”
As an owner of a service dog, I cannot imagine life without one of them by my side. People often ask me what service dogs do. So, I thought I would provide a day in the life of Ari the super pup.
Ari is a 9-year-old, half golden, half Labrador retriever. Like every dog, she has her own personality and idiosyncrasies. If you asked her, she would likely let you know that she is a pampered queen who likes to take her time and mull things over before deciding to participate in an activity.
Ari’s day begins as any well-cared-for dog does, with a bowl full of kibble. After a full (well partially full – she is a Lab after all) stomach, she uses the restroom and hops into the car. At this time, I am usually attempting to wake up (unlike her, I am not a morning person). Most days we head straight to the gym. This is her favorite time of the day. She has her many admirers at the Crossfit box we attend and, since it is a dog-friendly business, she gets to be off the clock. Her human friends throw balls for her and give her lots of belly rubs. By the time I am done coaching or working out, she has worked herself into exhaustion.
Our next stop is usually the office on the UNC campus. Here she begins her service-dog duties and gets suited up in her pulling harness. Since I have to use both hands to push, I often have her carry my lunch bag into the building. Once inside, Ari and I head out for a cup of Joe to keep myself going. On our way, we usually run into a few Ari admirers.
Now people often ask me, “When am I allowed to pet her?” Every service dog team follows its own set of rules. But, I highly suggest assuming you can’t pet the service animal without asking.
I know they look so soft, and watching them work is cute. But having others pet a dog while he or she is on the clock can significantly distract them and break down their training. Even when a dog looks like they aren’t “working,” they may still be on the job. Petting a service dog can cause them to learn bad behaviors. This can make it significantly more difficult for an individual with a disability to manage their dog. Inappropriate behaviors for service dogs can include lunging, begging, ignoring commands, etc. So, ask before you talk or touch a service dog and, when told “no,” respect the owner’s wishes.
The rest of the day usually involves her sleeping and occasionally getting up to help me pick something off the floor. At times, when my hands are full, she will push an elevator or door-opener button. On occasion, she goes off the clock (her harness removed) so that she can stretch her legs or greet some coworkers. Her constant presence gives me reassurance and confidence as I go about my work.
By the end of the day, we are both ready to punch out. I gather my things and hand her a bag to carry. We head out to the car and both grumble at the traffic. When we arrive home, she gets out of her harness and acts like any other four-legged pet. We sometimes take a stroll around the block, grab a bite to eat (she and I both protesting the amounts), and get ready for bed. She, of course, takes up most of the bed and hogs all the covers.
Service dogs are an integral part of a person with a disability’s life. Each dog is trained to complete specific tasks depending on the individual’s needs and disability level. Service dogs allow people like me to be more independent. Unfortunately, there are some who attempt to pass off their own untrained dogs as service dogs. These actions make it more and more difficult for people who need them to go into public places. So, the next time you think about pretending your beloved pup is a service animal or hear of someone trying to do this, think of people like me who rely on them to maintain independence.
Mia Ives-Rublee has a master’s degree in social work and is a research assistant at UNC. You can reach her in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org