The struggles of socializing service dogs

The views expressed in the following article are the opinion of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Newswire staff as a whole.

My name is Shelby Timm. If you do not know who I am, you may know the little black and gold fluffball who wears a red vest (and the occasional bowtie) and follows me around on campus. His wagging tail and sad face are hard to miss when we are out and about, but when we are in class, rarely will you notice his presence.

The pup’s name is Beacon, after the Beacon Apple Tree. He is a nine-month old Golden-Labrador Retriever mix, and he is my foster from 4 Paws for Ability.

4 Paws for Ability is a 501(c)3 organization located in Xenia, Ohio, which is about an hour north of Cincinnati. 4 Paws breeds and raises their own puppies to become service dogs for children and veterans in need.

However, this article is not about all of the joys that come with giving a puppy to a child or a veteran. It is not about the heartbreak that comes with giving a puppy back to the organization. I am writing on behalf of myself and other puppy socializers for 4 Paws about the pitfalls of having a puppy at your side — and some of the experiences that people with official and certified services dogs go through. I hope that you leave this article in shock and with a new understanding of what my fellow socializers and I do.

We can start off with some of the lighter stuff — accidents. As a puppy foster, you truly must be prepared for the strangest (and smelliest)  things. Beacon actually did this to me a few weeks ago. While we were walking through Kenwood Mall, he stopped suddenly and took a “Number Two” without warning. Thankfully, it was solid, and I was prepared with WetOnes and a poopbag to discretely and swiftly clean up the mess and continue walking.

However, some fosters are not so lucky. One foster was in Target when her pup took a not-so-solid poo in the middle of the walkway and proceeded to step in the mess, while an older woman looked at her in absolute shock. She stared as the foster cleaned the mess.

Another foster took her pup to a meeting, and the pup decided to urinate all over a girl who was sitting down while petting him. Yet another foster had her pup go into heat in the middle of her lecture class (if you do not know what “heat” is, it is equivalent to the human menstrual cycle).

We cannot always control the pups’ behavior, let alone their bowels and bladders, but these accidents are extremely inconvenient and embarrassing.

Fostering gets difficult when people make comments such as “It’s so sad, those dogs won’t ever get to be dogs again,” or “It’s a shame you don’t use rescue dogs.” It is hard when you get scolded for correcting your dog in a manner that someone else doesn’t approve of or when someone who “trains service dogs” needs to give you their two cents.

It’s uncomfortable when I notice that I am being videotaped while walking through campus or sitting in Starbucks. It’s also difficult when people with other dogs just assume their dog can play with mine. Why people think they can allow their dog to meet another strange dog without question is beyond me. People frequently just pet Beacon without asking for my permission, and I never hold back in telling someone “no.” A girl at an FC Cincinnati game called me a b*tch because I told her “no” after I stepped in front of her hand to stop her from petting Beacon without asking me. A friend of mine had her headphones removed from her ears by a college student who wanted to pet her pup — she gave a firm “no,” and he proceeded to get upset about it.

Restaurants have suggested I sit outside when I bring Beacon out to eat. I have been flat out denied entrance from places because Beacon isn’t a “certified” service dog. Tell me, do people think certified service dogs just appear out of thin air?

Socialization is the crucial period in the training of all service dogs. We socializers ensure that they are phased by nothing, because these dogs work hard for their person — that is their only priority. These dogs do not become the dogs that they are overnight, and they certainly do not do it without being exposed to every sight, smell and sound that we can provide for them.

The shortest but also the worst of the worst is when people outright ask, “What’s wrong with you?” First of all, in most contexts, that is illegal. Second of all, it is intrusive, obscene and inconsiderate. I took Beacon to a Cincinnati Cyclones game and the usher calmly told me, “You don’t look blind.”

I went to the zoo with another foster, and our pups and two college-aged males mentioned as they were passing by that (we) “don’t look like (we) have a disability.” On this point I encourage everyone to take some time to educate themselves about invisible disabilities.

Socializing is fun and worth every minute, but it is not always easy. These dogs have a greater purpose in their lives, and socializers are just one of their first steps on that journey.

Shelby Timm is the Founding President of Xavier’s 4 Paws for Ability chapter. She is a senior nursing major from Akron, Ohio.