Friday, September 5, 2014

Grieving the Loss-- An Assistance Dog Not Your Own

I have recently retired one dog due to illness, and completed the training of my new dog. Some of the reactions I’ve experienced during this process inspired me to write this blog entry. So your family member or friend has lost their assistance dog partner due to retirement or death. Maybe the dog is still living with their handler, but there is a new dog in the harness. Frequently people can say some really unhelpful, even hurtful things without meaning to do so. This is why I’ve decided to write down some do’s and don’t’s to help people figure out what is helpful or not. The first and only don’t is this: DO NOT BE AN ASSHAT! I know this is kind of a broad statement, so I’m going to give you some tips which will, hopefully, clarify the meaning of said asshatery. 1. Before you open your mouth to say something negative, do the service dog handler in your life a big favor, and stop, just for five seconds and think “Will this comment be hurtful or negative?” 2. The old dog is different than the new dog. I know, y’all are looking at me going “duhhh, I know that!” But do you, really? Do you find yourself saying things like “Why is Fluffy doing behavior X, Gizmo never did that.” or “When is Maggie going to start acting more like Spot?” Dogs are different, just like people are different. A new dog is very young, and inexperienced. The old dog has had years to hone their craft, and perhaps has slowed down and become even more calm due to age or illness. Comparing new dog to old dog is like comparing your college-age child to Grandma. Of course there will be normal comparisons, like “Luke wags his tail more than Bambi did.” or “Zippy wasn’t as tall as Flower is.” Please remember that each dog is their own person and go back to rule number one if you are unsure if your comment will be helpful or not. 3. Real life is not like Animal Planet. Seriously, it is not. Nobody is perfect, that includes the new assistance dog. This is real life, not a TV program. Television is highly edited and if your using the service dogs you see on Animal Planet as your base line as “How a *real* service dog acts,” you are going to be disappointed in reality. Dogs make mistakes, they do silly things, young dogs have energy and may get silly sometimes. I promise that in 99% of the cases, the old dog was silly too. This is a service dog, not a service robot. 4. Grieving an assistance dog is not like grieving your pet dog. I am not saying one is less or more than the other, just that they are different experiences. Some people grieve publicly, while others are more private about it. Do the handler in your life a huge favor and not assume that just because they are not showing their grief to you, that doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving. Nobody dictates the severity and length of time a person can grieve. It is a very private thing. Now we get to the Do’s: 1. Be a good listener. Sometimes people just need to talk things out. They may not even want advice. Before giving any, ask if they would like said advice and don’t be offended if they say no. 2. Ask how you can help the new team. You have probably fallen into habits when interacting with your family member or friend and their old assistance dog partner. Things may change with the new dog. Perhaps the dog cannot be petted while working, whereas the old dog had that privilege. Maybe the handler will want you to walk in a different spot in relation to the dog. Try and be open and respectful to the change. 3. It is ok for you to love the new dog. Really, it is. Retirement or death of a service dog is hard on everyone close to the dog. Just like the handler is grieving, our family, friends and coworkers will grieve too. Please remember, that as much as this loss is hard on you, it is probably about ten times harder on the partner. During this time, we need positive support, and an open mind, on the part of our loved ones.

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