Reflections on 7 weeks with a service dog

Is this “reflections” post a poorly-disguised excuse to share as many pictures as I can of Mickey? (PS follow him on instagram @mickeytheservicedog. HASHTAG SHAMELESS.) Yeah, I think it pretty much is, but whatever. Who doesn’t need more dog pictures in their life?

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It’s been just about 7 weeks since we got Mickey, and the transition has been intense. Everything from the physical challenges of integrating a big-ish dog into a small NYC apartment to dealing with the structural changes that having a dog involves (feeding schedules, pooping schedules, etc), to the logistical challenges (vets, baths, brushing, etc.) has been more than we anticipated—but isn’t that always how it goes? As much as we try and prepare ourselves for Big Changes, they still have a way of knocking us off our feet, and that’s OK: we adapt.

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But Mickey brings a whole new set of challenges, too: service dog specific ones. He’s both a beloved pet and new member of the family AND, as grim as it sounds, a medical tool. He was impeccably trained when we received him, but dog training is an ongoing process, one that we had to take over and will continue for the rest of his life. I’ve owned pets, but never a service dog. The responsibility is immense.

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But the reward is even more immense. He’s a living creature, and not perfect, but the way Mickey’s skills with me have developed in the past 7 weeks is pretty stunning. And the most amazing thing about his glucose alerting skills is that he not only catches highs and lows, but he can often catch trends before the actual high or low has registered. Meaning, he can alert me when my blood sugar is on the down- or upswing, which allows me to stave off the actual hypo- or hyperglycemia incident. Less time spent with blood sugar out of range? MAGIC.

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But cultivating these skills is no joke. My routines have gotten more complicated, more logistically convoluted. When Mickey alerts, I have to begin a long, tedious ritual: Praise him verbally for the alert, drag out my kit, insert a test strip into my glucometer, prick my skin, test my blood (all the while maintaining eye contact with Mickey and praising him for the alert). If he’s right, I have to immediately pull the strip and put it in a sealed tube to get the smell away from him, while simultaneously praising him loudly and pulling out his treats. I give him several in a row while encouraging him to paw me to alert. Then I put the treats away, and, oh yeah, deal with the actual impact of the alert—if I’m high, I pull my kit back out and take insulin, then pull out my little notebook and record it all. If I’m low, I have to get sugar to treat the low, then pull out my little notebook and record it all. (Of course, if I’m really low, I do all the “treating the low” stuff before praising Mickey and giving him his reward.)

If I catch a low or high before Mickey does, I have to get him to alert it (either by going closer to him so he can smell me, licking my own hand to get the smell more concentrated and putting my hand near him, etc.) Then I repeat the ritual above.

If I determine the alert he gave me wasn’t accurate, I have to search for other triggers: am I wearing clothes or surrounded by a blanket or sheets that I had a sweaty low in? Is there an old test strip somewhere that he’s smelling? Or, is he catching a trend that I can’t even see yet? In which case, I set a timer for 10-15 minutes and test again then, to see if he was on to something.

It’s a lot of minutiae, on top of all the obnoxious minutiae that diabetes already brings. It’s especially a lot at 3:30 AM when you’re half asleep and low as fuck and just want to close your eyes and ignore everything about how shitty you feel.

But then I’ll be sitting here, typing this post, and Mickey will pad over, look at me with consternation, then alert me to a drop before Dexcom does and I’ll avoid 45 minutes of feeling low, treating low, and recovering from low and I’ll think: holy shit this is worth it.

Just realized I haven’t posted any pics in several paragraphs. Let’s fix that:

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The logistics of it are hard, but the most difficult adjustment for me has been the public reception. I was so ready to take shit from people, and while there’s definitely been some of that, it actually hasn’t been the majority response.

Mostly, people fucking love Mickey. (And why wouldn’t they?) They smile when he passes them, they make kissy sounds or gasp in delight when he rounds a corner. I’ve had construction workers drop their work to ask me about him. Delivery men have stopped their trucks in the middle of the street to shout “What kind of dog is that?!” at me. One teenager literally screamed when she saw him.

The response to his vest has also been unexpected. Some people respect it, leave him alone or scold their friends for attempting to approach him (“That’s a service dog!”). Most people don’t. For them, the vest, and the obvious “Working Do Not Pet” patch actually functions as an invitation; it’s like he’s wearing a sign that says PLEASE APPROACH AND TALK TO ME!

“Can I pet him?” one guy asked me, but my response was irrelevant: he’d started petting on “can”.

People talk to me, too. They tell me about their own experiences with dogs, they talk to me about seizure dogs, PTSD dogs, grief counseling dogs, goldendoodles, breeders, their beloved pets growing up, non-shedding and shedding dogs, training dogs, etc etc etc.

If it’s not already obvious from my tone in this post, I’m sort of… ambivalent towards it all. I think it’s because I’m just so new to it. I don’t yet know who Jessie the Service Dog Handler Is. Maybe that’s because, in a way, it feels like it doesn’t matter: people are going to behave however they see fit around Mickey: whether I say “sorry, he’s working” or “Oh sure! You can pet him!” has so far proven irrelevant to their decision to pet and interact with Mickey.

On the other hand: I love that he brings joy to people. I love strangers smiling broadly at him as they go about their days and walk down the street. I’ve never gotten that kind of response from people all by myself! I love that dogs bring people together and I love that so many people are so excited by him.

Yesterday in the food store, a young boy and girl stared at Mickey while waiting in line with their Mom. “That’s a service dog!” the mom said to them in an elaborate stage whisper. “He’s in training: eventually he’s going to work as a seeing eye dog for someone who’s blind.”

I couldn’t help myself.

“Actually,” I said, breaking the fourth wall that she’d constructed and looking from her to her kids, “He’s mine. He’s a diabetes alert dog: he can smell changes in my blood sugar so I know if I need to take insulin or eat something.” The children nodded, the mom performed her best “Oh how interesting!” face. I tried to be as un-obnoxious about it as possible, to be friendly and educational and not snobby or rude. I hope I succeeded.

After we left the store, Stefan asked me if I usually do that, talk to people when they whisper about Mickey. “No,” I answered, “But in this case it felt like 3-for-the-price-of-1.”

I’m trying to figure it out: not just my relationship to Mickey, but also my relationship as Mickey’s handler, patient, owner, friend, and family member, and how I represent him to the rest of the world. I don’t want to be one of those service dog handlers who snaps at people when they approach my dog, who puts patches on their dog’s vest that say things like “It’s Almost Like You’ve Never Seen A Dog Before” or “Just Leave Us Alone!” or, my personal favorite: “Don’t You Dare F***ing Touch My Service Dog.” (All real patches that I’ve seen on dogs.)

But I also worry about my own stamina for being a walking representative for Service Dog Education. Sometimes I just want to buy groceries. Some days, I think “I can’t do it.” And other days, I think, “tough shit, Jessie: this is what you signed up for when you signed on to this.”

So if you see me in Stop & Shop and try to make significant eye contact in order to invite yourself over to pet Mickey, and I pointedly ignore you, please don’t take it personally.

I’m still learning, too.

But I get it: he’s fucking cute. And his sweet behavior, his calmness that can erupt into spontaneous puppy joy when he has a tennis ball or a chew toy, his curiosity for the world around him, his love for licking toes and his the way he sleeps in a bizarre twisted contortion that can’t possibly be comfortable, is pretty incredible. The way he follows me from room to room. The way his tail starts smacking against the floor when Stefan comes home. How he craves late afternoon snuggles. The serious look in his eyes when he alerts: like he’s a thoughtful scholar. He’s beyond lovable. I spent the first few weeks of owning him fairly stunned by him: his presence was almost too much to take; it was too alien, too unbelievable. On his first birthday, though, I thought: shit. I love him so much. And I haven’t looked back.

Here’s some photos from that day. He got a Very Special Chew.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on 7 weeks with a service dog

  1. Thanks for the wonderful update. We were wondering how it was going! What an adorable face… I totally get why people are drawn in!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Would love to talk to you – I am researching Diabetes Alert Dogs now (had one did not work out – need one). Would you be open to texting/emailing/ talking? Not a weirdo I swear. Well maybe a little bit that is according to my daughter.

    Like

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