Being out and about with an assistance dog is a mixed blessing. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t be without a guide dog any more than I’d poke my eyes out. But there’s always a downside, and the main obstacle to freedom with an assistance animal is Other People – aka “Morons”.
Morons, like bacteria, are everywhere. Even people with intelligence, reflectiveness and compassion can fall victim to Temporary Canine-Related Moronia [TCRM] when they unexpectedly encounter an assistance dog. And unless you have a friend with an assistance dog and you’re visiting them at their home, every encounter with such a dog is unexpected. Particularly since most people never look down in the course of normal day-to-day activities; meaning that many people begin an assistance-dog-encounter with the sensation of a wet nose in the palm, or a wagging tail against the leg, or the yelp of a helpless beast who has just had their paw or tail stood upon.
For us humans who have dogs as an extra limb[s] or sense, these encounters also have a particular character. Some have the shape of another person [Moron] jumping in shock or fear; then either apologising or talking to an animal who clearly doesn’t have the faculty to answer their direct questions; e.g. “Aren’t you beautiful?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you then?” etc. I leave it up to my canine companion to answer those questions if he sees fit.
Then there are random statements from strangers. I call these “statements” because I have yet to think of a polite, relevant response. These take the form:
(a) “That’s a beautiful dog”,
(b) “Does he take good care of you?”
and occasionally something like
(c) “God bless you”.
My inner responses to these, which I’m simply too nice to utter aloud, go something like:
(a) “Thank you, I made him all by myself.”
(b) “Yes, he makes my dinner, brushes my hair and picks up my poo. No, wait – it’s the other way around.”
(c) “Even if there was some kind of omnipotent being, which there patently isn’t, don’t you think the available evidence rather points to him having cursed rather than blessed me? Lifetime impairments and chronic pain seem an unnecessarily obtuse way for an all-loving deity to show their favour, don’t you think? Or maybe, and I favour this alternative myself, ‘He’ has a seriously fucking sick sense of humour.”
So generally, I respond to such statements with a wan smile if I can be arsed; or with feigned deaf-blindness if I can’t. And let’s face it, most Morons can’t tell the difference between deafness, blindness and idiocy.
Another symptom of TCRM is the loss of the ability to read. Most guide dogs and assistance dogs have their role written in English (or other native / widely understood tongue) somewhere on their person. My dog has a luminous strip on his lead saying “Guide Dog”, as well as a day-glo sign attached to his harness reading “Please don’t distract me, I’m working”. These clearly turn to some sort of gibberish in the minds of people suffering from TCRM, since I have been asked “Is that a racing dog?”; and been refused entry to businesses that display a sign saying “No dogs allowed EXCEPT GUIDE DOGS”. Mostly, Morons just feel free to attract the dog’s attention – sometimes when we’re halfway across a road – or just approach the dog directly to pat his head and purr babblingly into his ear. A precious few humans seem to be able to shake free, at least in part, from TCRM to ask if they can pet the dog. However, the TCRM still prevents them from being able to perceive whether I’m in the middle of a private conversation, commercial transaction or in a hurry to get to work. Even if I say “no, sorry, he’s not allowed to socialise when he’s working” or some other polite way of saying “fuck off”, the Moron will often attempt to draw a lecture on dog breeding or training out of me. (Very few wheelchair users get stopped on the street by a stranger who wants to admire their chair and discuss design and engineering.)
An added difficulty that arises from this constant interference is not obvious at first, even to the person using the guide dog. When your dog goes everywhere with you, it gets to know your friends and colleagues. Those friends who come round to your house to hang out also get the opportunity to play with and cuddle the dog when it’s off duty. So when you go to meet a friend, in a crowded café or busy bar, the dog recognises its friends and makes its way toward them. This is really helpful if you can’t recognise someone until their face is inches away from yours. However, if all the Morons reach out to cuddle and distract your dog as you try in vain to squeeze past their drunkenly immobile arses, the dog starts to hink “we’re making loads of new friends tonight!” When the half-cut barfly then turns to engage you in dog-related conversation, it can take some time for the human to realise that this isn’t an old friend or even a vague acquaintance, but rather some old lech who could potentially become a stalker. (This happened to me, albeit when I was using a white cane rather than a guide dog.)
Finally, there is the sheer boredom of having The Dog Conversation countless times per day. Temporary Canine-Related Moronia can go undiagnosed for years if the sufferer has regular contact with dogs. Therefore, when a TCRM patient approaches an assistance dog, they already have an interest in, and stories about, dogs; often those suffering most acutely have experienced loss of a particular canine companion who bears some resemblance to the assistance dog in question. [In fact, independent research suggests that the virus thought to cause TCRM adapts itself to a particular breed and gender of dog. Although any dog would make a decent host, with the human acting as vector [carrier], the virus is most strongly attracted to the breed and gender of dog to which it initially adapted. The virus may even drive its human vector to ask questions about the age, sex, pedigree and character of the assistance dog as a means for the virus to establish the suitability of its new canine host. Once it has identified a viable host, the human vector must make physical contact with the dog, paying no attention to other humans in the vicinity, to enable the virus to transfer to its new host.] Thus, The Dog Conversation replicates itself exponentially, as we smile and nod politely and remember that we are ambassadors for all people with disabilities…
Despite all this ranting, I must admit to occasionally enjoying The Dog Conversation, and letting certain people off the No Touchy He Worky rule. No amount of general irritation could possibly detract from the incredible freedom given by working with an assistance dog. This rant is usually internal: I express it here for the dual purposes of entertainment and edification.