Stop Staring at My Service Dog

Kevin Schaefer avatar

by Kevin Schaefer |

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Kevin Embracing my inner alien

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.

Pandy and Kevin

Pandy and Kevin, during senior year of high school. Image courtesy of Kevin Schaefer.

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.


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Kim Wilson avatar

Kim Wilson

I’ve had the honor of having a service dog at my side since the early 90s. My current SD and I have been a team for two years now.
I feel sorry for the author of this article, really. For one, even people who don’t like dogs will stop and admire service dogs. Yes, we try to remain invisible because while we’re not there to entertain the public, the public appreciates all the things SDs can do.
Yes, they do become our best friend, or at least one of them! You cannot help but bond deeply and love the dog who helps you in so many ways. My SD is my badge of independence!
For so many teams out there, their service dog helps break the ice, and people soon forget you’re in a chair or using any other medical device.
This author seems to be missing out on all the joys of having a service dog, and instead chooses to linger on any perceived slights.
Take a breath and take the time to reflect on all your dog does for you...more than what a lot of your friends would be willing to do day in and day out.

Kevin Schaefer avatar

Kevin Schaefer

Hi Kim,

First off, thank you for reading my column and sharing your thoughts. I always welcome feedback, even if you disagree with what I have to say. I appreciate your honesty.

Nevertheless, I want to first say that some of the things I said in this particular article were sarcastic and intentionally exaggerated, especially the last line about wanting to run people over who stop and stare. Obviously I don’t actually mean that.

Second, there’s something else I want to clarify. Don’t get me wrong, I love my dog and am grateful to have her. However, when strangers say things like “aw she’s your best friend” or “you’re in love!” it’s quite belittling. I’m 24, and comments like that sound like they’re talking to a child. Furthermore, when someone stops and stares instead of engaging me in a conversation, it puts me in an awkward situation and it often riles up my dog when I need her to be calm. People need to learn how to behave around service dogs. I’m sorry if I came off as too angry when I wrote this, but this is something that really does get on my nerves.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, but I hope I’ve explained myself better here.

All the best,
Kevin S.


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