One of the things they don’t tell you when you’re looking to partner with a service dog is how much your dog’s bad days will affect you.
In a way, your service dog becomes a part of you. Any person who works with a mobility aid – a cane, a wheelchair, crutches, a walker – can tell you that this is true of your mobility aids, as well. They’re both an extention of yourself and something that has great effect on you. When your mobility aid gets damaged, or doesn’t handle well in the weather, or isn’t suited to the ground surface, you suffer. There’s a period of adjustment with any new aid, where you have to figure out how it fits into you physically and emotionally.
All of that is true with a service dog as well, with a huge addition: your service dog is a thinking, feeling being. That fact makes the relationship enormously more complex. A cane doesn’t feed off my emotions, but Hudson does. A cane doesn’t get bored, but Hudson does. A cane doesn’t want to learn new things, but Hudson needs to.
A cane also doesn’t have bad days. Hudson does. He has days when he just doesn’t feel like it. When he wants to sniff and chase, not do service skills. When he doesn’t want to get out of bed, much less into his harness and working. When he’s feeling skittish and scared. When he’s hyper. When he’s sad. As I said, Hudson is a thinking, feeling being.
At first glance, I’m sure it seems like a small thing. Okay, so the dog is grumpy. So what?
Let me tell you what my day is like when Hudson is having a really bad day, super nervous and hyper:
I get out of bed, and we start our ‘good morning’ routine. It’s always kind of goofy and playful. Hudson doesn’t like getting out of bed, but once he’s up, he’s a silly dog indeed. Well, when he’s hyper, he can get a little too rough. Sometimes that means he’ll catch me with his teeth. Others, he’ll slam into my legs or hit me hard enough with his tail to bruise me.
That may not seem like much, but it can be to me. It can mean aching for the next hour or two, or even having a kneecap or shoulder pulled out of place. If Hudson does get rough enough to hurt me, I have to stop the goofy good morning routine, which is almost worse. I don’t wake up well, so this playful wake-up is as much for me as for him, and having to forgo it is…dissappointing.
I get dressed. When Hudson is really in an excited mood, he insists on sniffing my clothing before or as I put it on. It can throw me off balance as I try not to kick him while putting my pants on! So far, there haven’t been any actual injuries, but it’s been close a few times.
We go into the bathroom. When he’s raring to go, it can be a little hard to get him to hold still long enough to help me sit down on the toilet and get back off of it. He’ll be sniffing at the door, ears perked up, wanting to go go go and not being thrilled with being in the little bitty bathroom.
We head downstairs. I’ve gotten into the habit of sending him downstairs in front of me, because if he starts behind or next to me, sometimes he rushes past me and I’ve nearly fallen from that.
I send him outside into the back yard to do his business. Instead of heading to his box and going, he wanders around the yard sniffing. *sigh* Hopefully, this isn’t a day I’m running late, because if it is I’ll have to try harder to get him into the box and going. Even if it’s not a day I’m in a rush, I have to stand there in the doorway, with the door open, so it’s rather cold. The passageway leading to the door is narrow enough that I couldn’t put a chair there to wait for him, even if I thought that would help.
I eat my breakfast, and go to feed him his. He’s excited, so he doesn’t want to pick up his bowl, he wants to play with it. It takes more standing and more coaxing out of me to get him to pick up his bowl and hand it to me.
He eats, and then we go to get him dressed. Except he’s all wound up, so he doesn’t want to get dressed and makes that quite clear. I have to clip his leash on and hold him in place to get him into his harness, which means he’s pulling against my shoulder, my hand, my back.
Let’s say we’re headed off to a doctor’s appointment today. My doctor is downtown, where parking is lousy and it’s always busy. Hudson is happy to get in the car, and ride around, and get out, but once we’re there, oh, he’s NERVOUS.
He tugs me this way and that, rushes me a bit, which hurts. My shoulder, my hand, my back…it hurts. And this slows things down, because I have to keep stopping and correcting him, making him walk at my pace, try to get him centered on me instead of the Oh! Exciting! World! around him.
This is when it feels like I’m walking with a 2 year old. Aaah the bus is scary! Ohmygod what’s down that grate? I don’t like puddles! Yikes that bag crinkled at me! I want to sniff this thing now! Ohno that thing moved when I stepped on it! The door is going to get me! Everything is exciting, interesting, or scary. Everything makes him react, from going down almost onto his belly in fear to look down into the grate (which yanks his support out from under my hand) to leaping over puddles (which yanks me forward in a lurch).
We get to my doctor’s office, and he flops himself as close to the middle of the floor as he can. I try to get him to come under my chair. He’s not having it. Because I gave him the command, I have to make him follow through, so I have to pull on his pinch collar until he finally relents and puts his hindquarters under my chair. I’m tired enough from fighting him that I count that as a victory, even though I know he could get about 2/3 of himself under there if he’d just obey the command.
He’s still trying to sniff everything and everyone. When my boyfriend leaves to feed the meter, Hudson stares after him. I try to get Hudson’s attention, but he keeps breaking from what he’s doing to look down the hallway where the boyfriend went.
He finally calms down somewhat in the exam room. He flops in an awkward spot, and jumps up when the door opens, but he’s doing enough better that I don’t try to correct him too hard, just a verbal reminder that he’s supposed to be down. He tries to sniff the doctor, and then finally subsides.
We finish up with the doctor and head out. Hudson is very excited to see the boyfriend, and pulls on me to try to snuffle at him. I tell Hudson to leave him alone, and we head towards the elevator.
Despite the fact that Hudson rides elevators every day at school, today he has decided that they are scary and trying to get him, so he doesn’t want to go in. Every time the doors open, he tries to start walking out. Fortunately, we are only on the third floor, so it’s just one false start today.
Back out onto the street we go, and once again he’s tugging me every which-way, for all the reasons I mentioned before. Scary! Sniff! Let’s go! Not going there! Oh look!
We get back to the car, and I’m exhausted. It’s hard on me when he’s so twitchy, because I have to spend so much energy trying to get him to be properly supportive and responsive, and it takes so much out of me to be pulled on. I hurt. I want to go home and lie down.
So that’s what happens. We go home, and I go upstairs and lay down in my bed. He walks around the bedroom a bit, and stands near the door, listening for sounds of my boyfriend moving around in the house. Hoping to get out. Finally, he settles down right in front of the door with a disgruntled sigh. I call him to me, and he comes near enough to just barely brush against my outstretched hand before he turns around and flops on the ground, clearly sulking.
He sulks most of the rest of the evening, because he wants to Do! Something! and I have work, or I don’t feel well and need to stay laying down, or I just want to read and relax after the very trying expedition to the doctor’s.
So that’s one kind of really bad day for us – one where neither of us is happy and we’re probably feeding off of each other. His bad days are my bad days; my bad days are his. Yes, he gives much more support emotionally and physically than a cane does, but unlike a cane, he has days where he just can’t or won’t.
I’d love to pretend we had this perfect partnership where things always went right. For the most part, things really are pretty damn awesome, though Hudson does spend a fair amount of time being bored because I’m working. But that’s part of being a service dog, and in being a service dog he has the one thing I think he needs most – he’s never alone.