The Other Half of the Brigadoon Service Dog Partnership - By Celeste Macevicius (2017)
There is a particularly special aspect of having a service dog that often goes unacknowledged. In fact, in our efforts to laud our service dogs with all the praise they definitely deserve, we leave out a key part of the story – the handler. While it is true that our dogs do so many important things for us, the relationship is more than the dog helping us. Service dog handlers have a huge role to play in making the partnership successful. Meeting the dog’s physical, emotional, and social needs; keeping up the dog’s training; and dealing with the public are just some examples of the many responsibilities of the handler. However, I am not trying to say that this aspect of having a service dog is a drawback. Rather, I want to argue that it is one of the uniquely special aspects of service dog life.
People with chronic illnesses and disabilities require extra help in their lives, and too often this help is provided in a way in which something is done to them. For example, a person might be examined by a doctor, put on a medication, or picked up by a Handy Dart Bus. In these cases, a capable person is responsible for doing something to another person. With service dogs, the process is collaborative. The handler is put in the role of the capable person, becoming responsible for working with their dog to achieve something together.
With my service dog, I am not the patient or the client, I am the partner. We become independent together. “Independent together” may sound like an oxymoron – how can one be independent with someone else? – but I don’t believe it is. Nothing in this world is truly independent, everything is interconnected in complex, interdependent systems. So independence has to be defined on a relative scale. For many people, that means being able to do things like ride a bus, go to work, and do errands alone (though still with support from family, friends, and coworkers). For me, independence means being able to do things like ride a bus, go to work, and do errands alone with my dog.
In fact, one dictionary definition of independence is “not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself.” Humans tend to be very susceptible to influencing or controlling the thoughts and behaviors of others, even when they mean well. Dogs, in their ever-adoring state of happy loyalty, do not have that susceptibility. With this definition, I can be with a helper, while thinking and acting for myself. Self-direction, autonomy, independence.
When I look at my partnership, I am not just grateful for it, I am proud of it too. It is something I have worked hard at, with my dog. I help her and she helps me. We are partners, together.