Please (Don't) Ask

Ezra, sitting up straight and looking forward in the grocery store with a service dog vest on.

I get out of my car, and I unload Ezra. I hear someone squeal in excitement. Sigh. I guess it's going to be one of those outings. I finish unloading Ezra, grab my purse, and head into the store. I'm constantly hyper-vigilant, scanning and listening to everything around me for a potential threat — my disability is c-PTSD, and Ezra is my service dog.

What is a service dog, though? A service dog is not a pet, nor is it an emotional support animal. A service dog is specifically trained to do at least three tasks to help their handler's disability. Therapy dogs and emotional support animals are not service dogs, do not have the same requirements, and as such, aren't allowed the same public access rights as service dogs. Establishment staff may ask a handler:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

That's it. There's no "service dog ID", no certification, no documentation. Service dogs aren't actually required to wear vests, either. ✨the more you know

Now, if you're not staff is what I really want to talk about. I've been asked so many times: But does asking really hurt anyone? It's okay if I ask to pet the dog, right? The answer is honestly, no. It's really not okay. Now, before you get angry and defensive, please hear me out. Let's go back to the trip I started to describe in the beginning.

Because of my hyper-vigilance, I don't miss any reaction to my service dog. Even if you think you're quietly exclaiming to yourself, I promise you're not. Now let's answer the question: does asking to pet a service dog really hurt anyone? I promise it does. Many service dogs are medical alert animals. What does that mean? They can alert to changes in heart rate, glucose levels, and even alert to an incoming seizure. Wow, that's amazing right? The thing about most of these alerts is (especially seizure alerts) — they are designed to be on a timer. Let's say you walk up to a handler and distract their service dog by talking to them or petting them. They get distracted, and they give an alert two minutes late. Their handler thinks they have ten minutes until a seizure hits, but turns out they only have eight. Do you see the problem?

But Moriah, you don't have seizures — surely it's okay to ask you to pet your service dog, right? And the answer is: well, no. You're a stranger and don't know my medical issues, nor is it really any of your concern. You will not know if you dangerously distracted a service dog, and neither will the handler, until it is too late.

Not only that, but one of the first things I was told when I was looking into a service dog is "make sure you really need them, because it needs to be worth it." Many people with anxiety or other disorders that would benefit from service dogs avoid getting them purely because the amount of people who will approach them over their service dog can make their condition worse, so the benefits have to be worth the tradeoff. I explained I have c-PTSD — that means I don't really handle unknown people approaching me, talking to me, or talking about me (loudly enough that I detect it as a potential threat) very well.

I got a new vest for Ezra recently, thinking it would help. It has a patch that says "PTSD SERVICE DOG - INTERACTING WITH HANDLER CAUSES DISTRESS." It didn't. It doesn't.

Our outing continues.

A man laughs at me and Ezra as we walk down the aisle to find bread.

I get told how cute my dog is.

A child screams "PUPPY" at my dog, distracting him and causing me to jump scare.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

A young adult starts to talk to me, and reaches a hand out to pet Ezra without asking. I'm disassociating because of this unknown person talking to me, and almost don't stop them in time — but I caught it. Phew.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

Another adult stops me to tell me about their pet dog, and show me pictures.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

An adult approaches me to ask if they can pet my service dog, and get aggressive and angry when I say no. They storm off.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

Someone thanks me for my service. My service to what, child abuse? I don't say anything.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

"I know I'm not supposed to talk to you but hi buddy", someone says to Ezra in a baby voice.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

An adult in the checkout line tells me they have a vest for their pet dog, too. wink wink.

I get told how cute my dog is by someone else.

The cashier asks me what and who I'm training him for, and I say that he's my PTSD service dog. I watch the color drain from their face as they realize he's mine, and no, I'm not training him for someone else.

I finish checking out and we can finally leave the store. We walk quickly back to my car, because the comments don't stop in the parking lot. I load him into the backseat. I sit down and take a few minutes to let the exhaustion wash over me.

Going to the store is already An Event™️, with or without Ezra. I really handle it much better with him. Before Ezra, I couldn't go to a store without coming out a shaking leaf from the noises, overstimulation, and fear. With Ezra, it's manageable — but difficult for other reasons. Every exclamation and squeal is a spotlight on me & my disability. Every conversation spikes my symptoms and drains the amount of energy I have left for the rest of my day. Every photo someone takes when they think I'm not looking gives me severe anxiety and paranoia. Every time he's assumed to either be a fake service dog or a service dog in training for someone else, it reminds me that I don't look disabled enough.

I wouldn't change having Ezra for the world. He absolutely saved my life.

I just wish you would stop asking me about it.