Rego: A day in the life of a service dog handler

Shay Rego

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of The Collegian or its editorial board.

“Paws up,” I say to Keystone every morning to get him ready for school. He puts his front paws up on a chair to make getting him dressed easier. I put on his vest and he’s ready for work.

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Keystone is my psychiatric and medical alert and response service dog. We’ve been training together for almost two years now. He began his service dog training from a basic program that cost around $3,000. From then on, I’ve put in hundreds of hours in task training and public access work. Otherwise, he’s just your average German shepherd.

The 10 minute walk into central campus is usually never an issue. It’s the chaos on campus that causes me strain and stress as a handler. I’m a senior, and this year has had by far the most “service dogs” I have ever seen on campus.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of real and amazing service dog handlers I’ve met at Colorado State University, but there’s also plenty of non-task trained pets that people just slap a vest on.

Keystone knows our route to and from school well enough that I’ve been able to shape it into a guiding task. I tell Keystone “let’s go,” and he guides me to class.

Our route includes passing through a small social area between the Parmelee and Durward dorms. We take a corner and see a husky wearing an “in training” vest. At first, everything seemed fine, until it saw Keystone. Then, the husky was on its hind legs, barking and lunging at Keystone. Keystone kept walking, but it did distract him enough to make him sway from his task.

Service dogs are taught to never be aggressive, yet here they are, creating fear for working dogs on campus. This was only one of the many aggressive dogs we encounter almost daily at CSU.

All too often when I ask people what tasks their service dog performs, I hear, “Oh, she’s my emotional support animal! She’s certified and I have her paperwork, so I can take her everywhere!”

Great, another one of these types of people. It’s either blatant entitlement or genuine lack of education, but either way, these are the types of people that destroy service dog reputations.

Emotional support animals are not the same as service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, they don’t have public access rights like service dogs do.

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There is also no such thing as a service dog registry, certification, ID or paperwork in the United States. Don’t go flaunting some fake registration you overpaid for online because it legally means nothing and causes real service dogs major issues.

If you would like to follow us on our journey and learn more, check us out on Instagram @K9.KEYSTONE

It’s not just the plethora of untrained dogs running around with people to class. It’s the people themselves that cause me strain and stress as a handler. From the second we walk onto campus, Keystone and I suddenly become everyone’s entertainment.

I understand that having a dog with you everywhere you go is going to draw attention. It’s sometimes easy to ignore the side glances and the subtle smiles.

However, it’s not easy to ignore the blatant pointing and the not so muffled cooing of “aww, puppy!” that I hear walking through The Plaza. There are always eyes on me, and it’s extremely uncomfortable — I don’t think people even realize that they’re probably the 58th person to stare at me today, so of course they don’t see the harm in it.

Aside from the rude staring and obvious pointing that makes me feel like an anomaly, the overall lack of respect is dumbfounding. I can’t even walk through the Lory Student Center without someone stretching out their hand to try and pet Keystone as we walk by, as if they’re casually bumping into him.

Keystone is practicing his crying interruption task at King Soopers in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is very useful for stimulation overload and mental breakdowns (Shay Rego).

Petting a service dog can not only be distracting for the service dog while it’s working, but it’s also disrespectful.

A service dog is a piece of medical equipment. If you wouldn’t stare at someone’s cane or pet someone’s wheelchair, then don’t do it to a service dog. Don’t point at the dog, don’t shout about how adorable he is, don’t tell all your friends there’s a dog walking by — stop. I just want a normal day. If you must, observe from afar and don’t make a huge scene out of it.

After our day on campus, a long six hours of dealing with the dogs, the staring and the rude comments, we finally get back home. I collapse on my bed, I take off Keystone’s gear and he finally gets to go back to just being a regular dog. And sometimes, I wish he was just a regular dog.

The point is, if you don’t seriously need your dog with you, don’t take it with you — simple as that. And please, don’t pet the service dog. Having a service dog is hard enough as it is.

Shay Rego can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at @shay_rego.