January 12 was our 6 month anniversary. Hudson and I had lived through half a year of being partners.
I’ll tell you straight up it’s not what I expected. That’s partly my fault, and partly because of expectations. And the ‘not what I expected’ is not all bad, far from! A lot of this is just that…life with a service dog is different from what you think it will be.
For one thing, Hudson’s personality is entirely unlike any of the dogs I had growing up. He’s a gentleman, and the most curious dog I’ve ever seen. He’s also, as these things go, a doggy genius. And anyone who works with animals will tell you, that creates as many problems as it fixes.
Hudson doesn’t mind working, but he does mind getting dressed in his harness, prong collar, and haltie. Well, on an average day, anyhow. Like any thinking being, he has his days where he doesn’t want to do anything that resembles work.
He’s got stronger moods than I expected of a service dog. When he’s really enthused (and out of harness), he’s like a puppy, running around just because he can. When he’s bored, I get these great gusting sighs and occasional grumbles. He gets mopey and lonely, too, to the point where he’ll come over and nudge my laptop a little to try to get his head in so I’ll pay attention and pet him.
It’s more work than I expected. He has to be groomed daily, have his nails clipped and his ears cleaned weekly, be bathed every few weeks and clipped about every two months (except between his toes, which as to be clipped about once a month). I have to give him a nose to tail inspection for signs of health problems daily. There’s also the work of training – I have to be on top of his training at all times. I can’t chance him developing bad habits, so I have to notice when he picks up a dropped dog treat off the floor (in which case I have to pounce on him and take the treat out of his mouth, even if he’s started to chew and swallow. NOT FUN), when he reacts too strongly to the boyfriend coming home, so on. I also have to sit there and correct his bad habits by making him do things correctly, which is more work than you’d think. We also have to work on his skills all the time, so that he doesn’t forget the ones I don’t use very often (like turning on lightswitches). When he decides he isn’t in the mood to do something, or do it right, it can mean a great deal of fighting with the dog, which is frustrating. I find myself sometimes thinking, for a dog that’s supposed to be helping me and making my life easier, you sure make a lot of work!
I also didn’t expect…hmm. How to explain. I guess what I didn’t expect is how much a part of me Hudson has become. He’s more a part of me than any of my other mobility aids ever were. My self image includes him. We are so close that it’s hard to imagine myself without him, and if I do it makes me start tearing up because I know that eventually, I will have to be me without Hudson. 6-8 years – the average working life of a service dog – seems pitifully short.
He’s also an emotionally needy dog. I have to spend a lot of time just…petting him and reassuring him that I care about him. It gets a little frustrating now and again, because who wants that kind of emotional demand? But I know that I am more than repaid by his dedication to me, so I remind myself that this is part of being a partner. And, well, if you aren’t too busy or too much in pain to do it, petting a dog really is a nice way to spend your time. It’s only when he starts butting into me working or trying to hug the boyfriend that I get annoyed.
Which leads me to the final unexpected point about the dog – how much he’s bonded with my boyfriend. It’s very clear that Hudson thinks of the boyfriend and I (and possibly my care assistant) as his ‘pack’. When the boyfriend comes home, Hudson wags his tail enthusiastically, beating the ground with it. It took us weeks to convince him that it wasn’t acceptable for him to pop up and greet the boyfriend! He watches the door when the boyfriend leaves, waiting for him to come back. All that when the boyfriend hardly has any direct interaction at all with him!
So there you go. Life with a service dog isn’t exactly what you expected, or what you thought you bargained for, but that’s not a bad thing – just different.