Service Animals Have a Real Purpose

A camera flashes in front of my face, and a smattering of whispers follows the flash as I walk through the airport. You’d think I was at least a B-List celebrity or maybe at the center of the latest political, sex scandal, but I’m not. I’m just a normal young woman except for one very noticeable difference: I have a service dog.

My service dog, Sammy, came into my life in June after the worst year of my life. I muddled through the school year, but as summer semester approached, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life quietly suffering and burying the trauma of the last year. I couldn’t stop life from taking its course, but I could control my reaction. My doctor and I decided that getting a service dog would be the best way for me to heal naturally from two sexual assaults over a four month period. Although I got my service dog under negative circumstances, he has been the biggest blessing in my life.  I’ve also watched Sammy and other service dogs bring positivity into the lives of others and serve more people than just their owners. Simultaneously, I have also experienced firsthand the terrible mistreatment of the disabled in this country.

One of the bigger challenges of having a service dog is explaining to people who I’ve just met or people who haven’t seen me in a year or two why I have Sammy. Often times, people assume I’m training Sammy, which is a fair and harmless assumption because so many students are involved with organizations like Labs for Liberty, but I feel dishonest telling someone that I’m training Sammy when he’s actually mine. I shouldn’t be embarrassed about needing a service dog, but sometimes, I am embarrassed. I would caution you to avoid the assumption that just because the handler of the service dog has no discernible, physical ailment doesn’t mean that the service dog isn’t theirs. Not all scars are visible. It is super awkward to introduce myself to someone new when the first fact they know about me is that I was sexually assaulted and have a service dog.

In an attempt to be considerate, people often act differently around me once they know why I have Sammy. I’m not made of glass. I won’t break if you talk about sexual assault in front of me, but dually, my disability is not a spectacle or something I “do for attention.” Socially, we should be teaching people how to act around service animals and their owners. I know my dog is crazy cute, but please don’t walk up and try to pet him without asking. Even worse, don’t just take a picture of my service dog and me. It makes me feel like I’m a zoo animal, and I’m already self-conscious about my disability. Multiple people have said to me, “I want a service dog!” or “I want to get a dog and put a service vest on it so I can take it everywhere.” Now, I don’t presume to know your life or what you’ve experienced, but I’m willing to bet that you want a dog, not a service dog. To get a service dog, you also have to endure some sort of physical or psychological trauma, and the service dog must perform a specific task that aids to your disability. Legally, anyone is allowed to ask you what task the service dog performs in order for you to enter an establishment, and trust me, they will ask. I have no respect for people who wish to abuse laws like the ADA that have been put into place to help people who depend on service dogs to function. My service dog is not a fashion statement; he comes with me everywhere to help me when I have a debilitating panic attack or a flashback.

As much as other people’s reactions to Sammy can be exhausting and borderline offensive, if given the chance, I would get a service dog all over again. Animals possess an amazing healing power. Sammy isn’t just my dog; he’s everyone’s dog. Although my service dog’s main purpose is to help me manage my PTSD symptoms, he has taught me so much about accountability, to myself and to him, motherhood, self-love, self-respect, and unconditional love. I hope that people begin to more widely consider service animals as a serious form of treatment over medication for many illnesses. For me, my service dog made all the difference to my healing.