Having a disability means that one or more major life activities are impacted. This may mean that a person’s ability to walk, feed themselves, breathe, or think rationally will be greatly affected. An often directly related but lesser life impact of being disabled is on a person’s social life. Being disabled can hold people back from doing activities they may once have loved or would love to start doing. Though not necessarily from lack of interest, able people often struggle to understand the daily effect being disabled can have. As a result, it can be difficult for a disabled person to maintain and create positive social interactions with others. When you add in the additional complexity of a service dog, it can be even harder to be a disabled person trying to find friends or participate in social outings and gatherings.
The Many Benefits of Online Spaces
The rise of the internet has brought along chat rooms, forums, and online groups. These allow service dog handlers, those training or waiting to receive a service dog, and those with a general interest in service dogs to talk, ask questions, and exchange information. These avenues offer a space to vent, listen, and learn from other service dog handlers – people who really get it!
The primary upside of these online meeting spaces is obvious: Handlers who are mostly homebound or for one reason or another struggle to form social bonds within their local community, have a space to “meet” others similar to themselves. They can create bonds and friendships from the safety and comfort of home.
Some of the strongest friendships can be forged between people who have never actually met face to face. The lack of having to physically be in the presence of another person can be a helpful bridge for people who struggle to have face-to-face conversations for any myriad of reasons. Although speaking only through text or type can seem impersonal, it might be easiest for some. These individuals can open up more freely and find support and camaraderie without judgment.
Another benefit is the on-demand nature of the internet. There are service dog handlers all over the globe. Someone, somewhere is awake, online, and just about guaranteed to be able to answer a question or chat quickly.
Service dog groups can be incredibly supportive for some people. It is often difficult to explain to the average person why it was so disturbing for someone to interrupt you as you are talking on the phone to ask to pet your dog. Other members of service dog groups and forums genuinely understand the frustrations faced on a daily basis as a service dog handler. They can commiserate as well as provide suggestions for how best to handle similar situations at a future date.
Considerations to Keep in Mind
The draw of making friends with similar experiences aside, it’s important to remember several basic realities of the internet as they pertain to online service dog related gatherings.
1. Not All Information is Factual Information
Online service dog groups contain a lot of information. This can be about everything from prospect selection to task training, to handling nuisance behaviors and more. It is extremely important to remember that participants in these groups come from all sorts of different dog training and handling backgrounds. Just because a suggestion or piece of advice is posted on the internet does not mean it is true or safe. There is also never a single right way of training any specific behavior or handling a scenario, but there are a lot of wrong ways. What may be right for one handler and dog may be very inappropriate for another. There certainly is no one size fits all piece of advice for any subject.
2. Online Advice Can Never Replace an In-Person Expert
The very best place to get information specific to your situation is from an experienced (and preferably credentialed) trainer who can work with you and your dog in person. The very best trainer in the world will not offer to give tailored advice to a dog and handler they have not met and seen work together right in front of them. Because service dogs can be any breed and size there is a lot of variation in temperament. Training methods that are most successful with some types of dogs may not be for others. There can even be variation between methods of training that work for different dogs within the same breed.
While some styles and methodologies may be extremely successful for training some service dogs, they will be useless or potentially detrimental to others. Working with a trainer who understands the rigors of service work, how to assess a good candidate, and how to help the handler and dog reach their goals and any personal requirements of the dog’s job, is almost without exception going to be more beneficial to a service dog team than sampling a selection from the “buffet” of options available from other handlers and trainers in service dog groups and forums.
3. Not Everyone Has Good Intentions
Given the anonymous nature of the internet, inevitably there will be people who actually join groups with the intention of causing drama and discord. These people are generally folks who are big and bold in their internet personas but would likely shrink if questioned by someone standing before them.
Genuine miscommunications do happen, and happen with higher frequency in disability related groups (such as those pertaining to service dogs) than in an average sample group. The flat text that comes through the computer screen lacks tone, inflection, and associated face and body language that would be present when speaking to someone in person. People with disabilities are more likely to have trouble envisioning tone either in what they are reading of someone else’s words or realizing how their words may sound to others.
Miscommunications aside, some people do go out of their way to be rude and hurtful. Some groups tend to focus far more on criticizing than others. It can become easy without someone physically watching you be mean, to say things you would not dare utter to another person while standing in front of them.
Unfortunately this discriminatory mentality rarely discriminates. Offering yourself as someone who will be critical to others definitely has a tendency to bite back. Just be aware when reading posts from others that if advice, a story, or a personal offer seems far fetched or too good to be true, it very well may be.
4. Perfect Service Dogs Do Not Exist
Have you ever seen a video of a service dog executing a difficult string of tasks or obedience behaviors flawlessly and hoped your current or future service dog would someday be able to perform with similar precision? Has a handler ever insinuated that if your service dog did not perform in such an exacting way constantly that either your dog was not a legitimate service dog or that you were failing your service dog as a handler?
Extremely well trained service dogs are pure pleasure to watch work, but even the best service dog will have off days. An “off” day should in no way mean a service dog will be out of control, show signs of aggression, extended periods of fearfulness or skittishness, or inappropriate toileting. However, it does allow for the dog to have a slight lapse of working behavior in its best form. Even the best service dogs will get bored, sneak a sniff, get distracted and require reminders for commands. They may even solicit a pet from a stranger, but none of these behaviors are ones that prove a service dog is poorly trained or fake.
The phrase “service dogs are not robots” is often tossed around to justify unacceptable service dog behavior, but it does hold a lot of weight. Perfection in a service dog team does not exist in the dog or the handler. Both make mistakes from time to time. When reaching out for support in a service dog group about these momentary lapses in judgment, just remember that no one responding has a perfect service dog. Every handler who is not brand new to working with a service dog has made their own mistakes and had their service dog make mistakes.
The best thing to do if looking for advice is to be open minded to any suggestions for what to do differently in the future to prevent a similar occurrence. This is a good way to prevent ”off” moments from happening again.
Service dog groups can sometimes be really useful in providing suggestions, but take every suggestion with a grain of salt – remember, no one is a perfect handler of a perfect service dog!
5. What You See Online is Not Always an Accurate Reflection of Reality
The vast majority of pictures and videos people post in service dog groups paint the dog or team in a positive light. While the dog’s capacity can be witnessed in a single picture or video, it’s impossible to tell based on this evidence alone if the dog actually performs to that level consistently.
A Simple Example
A good example of this is one of the first commands most people teach to a dog: sit. The vast majority of puppies can be lured into a seated position in minutes or even seconds. It won’t take long before that puppy will sit without a lure, expecting a treat. At this point many people will introduce a command such as “Sit”. The puppy will likely sit after hearing that command. Someone may post a video of them telling their pup to “Sit” and the puppy then sitting. This video may exclaim that the puppy learned to sit on command in only a matter of minutes. This is not necessarily accurate.
The puppy is still learning to sit on command even if they have successfully performed the chain that will ultimately be expected as the final desired behavior. If the puppy was taught in the living room, will the pup sit after hearing the command in the bathroom or the backyard? Will the puppy still sit if several dogs start barking and running about? If the handler is working with repetitions of sitting, will the puppy refrain from sitting if the handler suddenly tosses in a different known command word like “Down” or a random word like “Apple” or will the puppy only sit after hearing the chosen “Sit” command word?
This is a widely accepted way to go about training a puppy to sit, but until the behavior can be exhibited promptly and properly in a variety of locations and under distraction at least 80% of the time on one command, it cannot be said that the command is truly learned. Until then, it is still a work in progress.
This is applicable to everything that can be seen as a proud training or working moment captured and shared. Just because someone shows a dog doing something impressive does not necessarily mean the dog can consistently perform that well. Did the handler who just posted a video of their dog heeling carrying a raw hot dog only take one video, or did they take dozens in an attempt to show the best one? Sometimes there will be editing. Perhaps the video of the dog successfully heeling holding a hot dog ends but in actuality the video was trimmed to omit the dog promptly gobbling the hot dog without permission after. The heeling with the hot dog feat is not unimpressive by any means, but that video is not perhaps the best representation of that dog’s skill level with that command in that context.
Words vs Real Life
This applies to real life meet ups with other service dog teams. What is seen online is not necessarily what will show up in person, and for that reason a degree of caution should be exercised. While there are plenty of handlers who represent their service dogs and team capabilities accurately online, there are some who embellish their service dog’s abilities or cherry pick what they show of their service dog to paint a favorable picture that may not necessarily align closely with reality.
In the six years I’ve been working with service dogs, I’ve met up with more than 30 different teams. Some I’ve remained close friends with and do regular meet ups with. Others I simply didn’t connect with on a personal level and chose not to meet up with again. There were a few situations in which I felt a handler vastly misrepresented their service dog, potentially endangering other handlers and their service dogs or members of the public. I’ll give a few fictional examples just to give a better picture of what I mean regarding misrepresentation:
Scenario #1An enthusiastic young handler posted frequently about what she and her service dog were doing. She also posted training videos. While not a professional, she was a decent trainer in her videos and controlled her service dog well. She did not intentionally mean to misrepresent her abilities as a handler, but inadvertently allowed her dog to be a potentially dangerous nuisance during a meet up. Overall she handled her dog quite appropriately during the meet up with several service dog handlers, but became anxious and completely unfocused on her service dog’s behavior. Her service dog jumped on a child who excitedly ran up to the dog while the handler was unable to effectively control her dog.
Scenario #2A handler with a program dog posted several videos and quite a few statements about his service dog when he first received the dog from the program. The dog appeared to be very well trained in the videos taken during and shortly after team training. The handler continued over the next year to post about the ways his service dog helped him and would sometimes include pictures of his service dog posed in a sit stay or laying down under a table or in a corner. He met up with another handler after striking up a friendship and talking quite a bit over many months. In stark contrast to the well behaved dog in early videos, this handler’s service dog was pulling wildly on the leash, sniffing, and licking the floor.
It really is difficult for anyone who is not a service dog handler to fully empathize with the struggles and triumphs experienced in the course of daily life with a service dog. Groups specific to service dogs serve a fantastic purpose for education, friendship, and support. There are a myriad of reasons service dog groups can have a very positive and helpful effect.
Often as the flip side to every pro of the online service dog community are the cons. The best way to navigate these groups is to remember to use basic safety and courtesy. If you’d not like something said to you, don’t say it. If it sounds sketchy, it probably is. One of the nicest aspects of the service dog community is how many different aspects there are to explore. So be safe, and enjoy all there is to learn and chat about!