The other night, I was out at Barnes & Noble with my dad. As we went to grab a table in the coffee shop area, I ran into an old friend and spent a few minutes talking with him and his friend over by one of the store’s bookshelves. During our conversation, a middle-aged couple, whom I did not know, stopped right in front of us and stood there awkwardly for several moments, staring.
I knew what they were doing right away, because this situation happens to me on a regular basis. The couple stopped to ooh and ah over my service dog, who was sprawled on the floor next to my wheelchair. To them, my dog was the equivalent of a museum attraction, and they were perfectly content with intruding on my conversation so they could gaze at her.
Back when I first looked into getting a service dog, I was most hesitant about the massive amount of attention I would receive as a result. Having a dog in public would inevitably draw crowds of onlookers and spark numerous questions from strangers, and, frankly, I already had enough of that from using a wheelchair. Even today, I still get frustrated by comments like “oh, that’s a special friend you have there” or “she’s your best friend, isn’t she?”
For the record, I’d like these people to understand that I am an adult and I don’t appreciate being talked down to like a child. Furthermore, my closest friends are people, and despite the special bond I have with my service dog, she will never come close to being my best friend. Strangers like to make assumptions, however, and I’m sure they’d be taken aback if I told them how I really felt when they say these things.
Yet the thing I find most interesting and annoying about these encounters is that my dog isn’t an unusual breed by any measure. Pandy (short for Pandora) is a mixture of a yellow labrador and a golden retriever, and you can easily go down the street or to a park to find a canine that looks just like her. Yet based on the reactions of people when they see me in public with her, it’s as if they’ve never seen a dog in their lives.
In the specific B&N situation, I was fortunate that I wasn’t alone and that I was still moving around the store. The worst is when it’s just Pandy and me at a table, after I’ve gotten her settled down and underneath. A stranger comes and riles her up by either staring at her or trying to pet her. This is extremely frustrating, as it not only interrupts whatever I’m doing, but it gets Pandy excited when I need her to be relaxed. Once that happens, it’s difficult to calm her down again.
Granted, it’s different with friends and people I know. If I give permission for people to pet Pandy or say hi to her then it’s OK, but my friends always know to ask first. I’m also happy to answer intelligent questions from strangers about anything, from my dog to my disability. There’s a big difference between engaging me in a conversation and staring at my dog and me like the two of us are the center of a person’s fantasy.
People fail to realize that service dogs do not exist so that they can be consumed as some sort of public spectacle. These onlookers may think they’re being nice or friendly when they stare and try to pet my dog at the most inconvenient times. In reality, there’s nothing friendly about it. When a stranger stares at my dog and me, it’s overtly rude, inconsiderate, and childish, and it makes me want to run their feet over with my chair.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.