With My Service Dog

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My dog is a dog, yes. He's also a medical device, like a wheelchair or an oxygen bottle.

Don Zuzula


I had to have a talk with my little daughter Eleanor yesterday about people with disabilities. She loudly pointed out a guy with what she thought was a prosthetic leg. I had to explain to her that it sucks as a disabled person to be singled out and pointed out for being different, when you just want to be treated like everyone else.

This is something that's never been more apparent to me than since I've had my service dog Harbaugh, because now, where I looked like everyone else before (sort of), I'm carrying a sign that says I'm disabled, and everywhere I go people are either talking about me when I walk by—I hear it when you do that; "Look! That guy has a service dog!”—or they actively make an effort to walk up to me to express their opinion about my dog. I appreciate my dog because he's hands down the best thing that's happened to me since I've been trying to get help, but it stops me, takes my time and actually raises my anxiety level, making me not want to go out, even though both myself and my dog need it. I'm already making lists of places that we aren't going to go anymore like the dog park because we can't get any peace there.

My dog is a dog, yes. He's also a medical device, like a wheelchair or an oxygen bottle. You wouldn't walk up to an 85 year old guy in a mobility scooter and tell him that you like his scooter while he's trying to buy a hat, but for some reason, it seems like people think that behavior is perfectly OK regarding my dog. And don't get me started on people who think they're special and can ask to pet him. His signs don't say "Ask To Pet”, they say "Do Not Pet".

I suppose understanding disabilities is a little different for me, for I grew up with a grandmother in an electric wheelchair who was a recovering quadriplegic. My mother cared for her and drove her to her appointments and ran her errands with her in her lift van, so I am a bit more sensitive to the plight of a disabled person. I always knew that people stared and made comments about the disabled, but now I'm actually on the receiving end and it'll take a bit of adjustment, I guess. I used to sit and hear people make talk or make comments about disabled people and then I'd speak up and say "I'm a disabled person" and tear them a new asshole, like the scene from "The Jerk" where Navin Johnson informs the mobsters that he's a poor black child and lays waste to them. Now I've lost my cover and I'm just out there.

It's one thing to come up and ask questions and be curious, I'm not ignorant to the fact that my conduct in those situations could make or break someone's opinion of what these dogs do. It gets exhausting though because the nature of what I have going on, plus the fact that it'll happen so frequently and it's not answering questions, it's someone who just runs up to me and starts telling me a story about their dog, and how they think it's great that I have one and mine is adorable and they want to know what breed he is, et cetera . Not relevant information, they're making small talk, which is awful to me. I'd rather put a soldering iron through my eyeball than make small talk with a stranger in public when I'm alone. Especially when they're holding up what is mostly my daily obedience training with the dog, and really great quality time that we both look forward to. It turns into an exercise in stress management for both of us, and the dog ends up working me through a panic attack in the handicap stall in the mens room.

Prior to getting Harbaugh, I was in a bad place. I was isolating, keeping away from things I loved because it's difficult for me to have interactions in public places without being heavily medicated, and he's offered me a lot of freedom to live a normal life like other people. That way, it's a bit more relevant as to why singling him out is sort of inappropriate. He's the reason why I can do the things I've started doing, but with people pressuring me into unwanted interactions in public, they kind of lessening his calming effect by heightening my symptoms by triggering my anxiety.

I know a couple vets who either don't take their dogs out anymore, or have given their dogs up because of these inappropriate interactions. I'm not going to be one of those vets. The bond I have with Harbaugh has already done so much for me that I can't fathom being without him, even with the uncomfortable people. I can soldier through it, but for some reason some guys don't stick with the dogs. You see them for sale on Craigslist from time to time.

For the first time in forever, I felt good enough to leave the house at night. Harbaugh and I went to Musicians Night at Whites Bar in Saginaw. I figured if he couldn't handle the noise, we’d consider changing venues for a bit before heading home. Cold Sprite and live music with my battle. We sat in the other room, but there was a table of rowdy guys having a great time. Harbaugh didn't mind the music, but he hated the cheering and yelling.

I'm calling this a huge win. I haven't even moved to "plan B" which is the dog ear muffs that I bought that kill noise. He didn't seem to mind the music at all, he was practically sleeping until the song ended or the crowd started singing. He slept through the music in the main room. It was an acoustic show, but I think I'm going to get to enjoy live music again, with Harbaugh.



Don Zuzula is a combat veteran, graphic artist and songwriter/guitarist for Michigan's own Folk Punk group The Tosspints. Photos © Don Zuzula 2017.

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Copyright © Don Zuzula. All rights reserved.

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