Life with an Assistance Dog (and an Invisible Illness)

I have chronic complex medical conditions which also happen for the most part to be invisible in nature. Among other things I have vestibular disease which means I find moving around hard due to being so dizzy and off balance all the time, I have issues with spatial awareness, depth perception, I find walking anywhere other than flat ground very difficult – I fall up and down hills, stumble, and the symptoms are exacerbated with noises, changes in day light – dusk and darkness are very difficult for me, movements, so moving around outside can be torture at the best of times, with the cars, noises and people, but when I do fall down or fall over, people usually tend to think I’m either drunk, on drugs or just incredibly clumsy. I used to worry all the time about going out alone because if those people with criminal intentions knew how off balance and vulnerable I actually was then I’d probably not get ten feet up the road without being robbed.

Then I got my Assistance Dog.

I don’t think I could ever have realised what a difference having an Assistance Dog could make to my life, and to boot my dog started alerting to my low blood sugar and my frequent Hemiplegic Migraines on her own, albeit after I’d bought the scent work equipment to train her to do it!!! But she’s amazing. We go everywhere together and she is my constant companion, she’s actually laying beside me with her head on my lap right now. Last week she actually crossed my path and stopped dead, and then alerted to low blood sugar all while we were walking down the road. She is an absolute angel who makes all the things that make my life so difficult not so bad.

Within the home as well as medical alerts she performs tasks to help me – she will pick objects up if I drop them on the floor and give them to me. If I ask for my phone she will bring it to me, if I ask for my medication bag she will bring that, she can open and close doors, if I fall in the home she will position herself on my right to help me get up and she is also learning to press the crossing button and also to unload the washing machine.

Outside the home her job is to keep me safe, to medical alert, to also act as a counter balance as the deficit affecting my balance is on my left, the best way I can explain it is it’s like I have a weight inside my head on the left side pulling me down, so I lean and fall to the left, my dog is walked on the right and this acts as a counter balance, when she is on my right side I tend to walk a lot better.

I have a newly found sense of freedom in having my dog by my side, and especially going into public places with her as well, we’ve been to my doctors surgery, the hospital, many shops and even Ikea! But there is a not so good side to this – the general public. My dog wears a vest that says she is an Assistance Dog, she also wears a slip on her lead that says ‘Do Not Distract’ but sadly 80% of the general public thinks this doesn’t actually apply to them and they are free to approach my dog and violate her and her personal space by forcing themselves on her. My dog is very polite and will back away and come and stand by my side. But this usually means that I will then be subjected to questioning as to why my dog, who is working, did not want them to touch her. Members of the public will touch her as we walk by, say hello to her in a silly voice and do their best to get her attention so they then have an invitation (so they believe) to come and pet her. When my dog is working we have special protocol in place if someone asks to pet her, which involves asking her to sit, wait and then she is released to greet the person, and for this to take place all people actually have to do is respect my dog and me, and ASK. It’s amazing how people will just gravitate to us while we’re just trying to do normal things! When we go out to the shops with friends they’re amazed by two things – How many times we’re actually stopped AND How many times I say the same things over and over again. I end up having to be an advocate for Myself, My Dog, Disabled People and Invisible Illnesses all the while I am so dizzy, so nauseous, so tired and all I really want to do is get the thing from the shop I need to get and go home and go to bed!

The other side of this somewhat forced interactions with members of the public is that they will ask lots of questions. The biggest assumption of all is that I am training my dog for someone else because apparently I look fit and healthy, that my dog will make a disabled person really happy one day – this actually hurts me the most if I’m honest and I get it a LOT. I am classed as disabled, I see myself as someone with disabilities. If I didn’t have a disability I wouldn’t have a medical alert/assistance dog because they literally don’t just give them out to people, you have to have specialist medical support and letters of support, medical evidence .etc in order to have these dogs. You HAVE to be disabled. And then comes the questions – ‘What’s EXACTLY wrong with you because you look fine to me!’ ‘Why do YOU have this dog when my Son/Daughter is ACTUALLY disabled, sicker than you and we could have this dog for them’ ‘What makes you think you’re so special to bring your dog to the shop with you’ My dog is a highly trained piece of equipment who isn’t a pet dog. She has received countless hours of specialist training in order to provide a task trained service to me, she has passed exams, undergone assessments and is regularly assessed and monitored. We have to submit logs of what we’ve done and video evidence of this. Of course she is more than a piece of equipment, she is my best friend, but this is the definition of what she is and what she does.

Last week I was sitting on a bench with my dog in a shopping centre, she’d just alerted to me having low blood sugar and i was rummaging through my bag trying to find my dextrose tablets, I was dizzy, shaky, feeling really spaced out and my heart beating fast. Out of nowhere came a woman gabbling on her phone, she tanked right up to my dog and attempted to plant her hand on my dogs head, my dog jumped out of her skin because at that point in time she was fixated on me having alerted to my low blood sugar and intent on keeping me safe and making sure I understood what she was telling me. As my dog jumped she leapt backwards and I actually flew forwards off the bench and onto the floor on my face, the woman fled leaving members of the public to help me up. Both my dog and myself were fine, but this is the reality for us and not the first time it’s happened, and sadly it won’t be the last.

Is it really much to ask people to step out of their own self indulgent, self entitled little world and see things from someone else’s point of view?

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