It happened yet again. A complete stranger asked where my dog was, seemed shocked that I don’t have one, and loudly expressed her disappointment, complete with injured sigh.
“Oh! I was really hoping you’d have a dog with you. It would have been nice if you’d brought a dog with you.”
This time, I was luckier than usual. She eventually continued engaging with me, despite my disappointing inability to provide the doggie interaction she so craved. Most people, once they’ve finished voicing their dismay, lose interest altogether. My value lies in my potential to bring a cute dog into their lives, and when I fail to fulfill that potential, I either fade into invisibility, or field intrusive questions about my blindness and how I cope with it. At no point during these interactions am I asked my name, what I do for work, what I studied in university, or any of the other small-talk topics I’d vastly prefer. For these sorts of people, I’m a living educational exhibit, or a possible conduit to what they really want—an adorable puppy dog.
At least this particular stranger went on to chat about other things, like the negligence of city drivers and the unseasonably gorgeous weather. In my world, that’s a win.
As I’m always quick to point out, I understand that people who make these comments are well-intentioned. When they’re expecting a dog and none appears, they aren’t aware of how much their transparent disappointment can hurt. I doubt they’d be so outwardly miffed if they knew they were making an awkward situation even worse. But as good as the intentions might be, they don’t make this behaviour any less irritating for those of us who encounter it regularly. When you’re the hundredth person to interrogate me for not wanting a dog, I must admit your personal motivations stop mattering all that much to me.
My readership knows by now that I have no intention of getting a service dog. I’ve taken pains to outline my reasoning. I’m unwaveringly supportive of service dogs and the handlers who work with them, but haven’t been shy about discussing the downsides of such a partnership. The one thing I feel I haven’t done with sufficient clarity is describe how it feels to be asked time and time again, “Where’s your dog?” and be met with undisguised judgment and displeasure when I say “I don’t have one.” It’s disruptive, sure, but there’s more to it than that.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone—a stranger, or someone you know well–accosted you to ask why you don’t have kids. Is it because you’re selfish? Is it because you’re incapable of taking care of them? Are you lazy? Do you hate children?
Take it a step further: imagine this person then went on to insist that your life would be so much better if you had them. This is even more fun when the person knows nothing whatsoever about you or your circumstances. They ask personal questions and draw incorrect conclusions based on their own biases and assumptions. By the end, you feel called out and frazzled. Meanwhile, the other party has no idea whether sensitive issues underlie your decision.
The kicker? When you complain, when you point out that the interaction made you feel uncomfortable, people tell you to lighten up. They tell you you’re overreacting. They tell you that not everyone knows how to behave around you, and that if anything it’s actually your fault for not educating them.
This cycle continues–about my lack of guide dog and my lack of children, as it happens—and my annoyance is dismissed.
Yes, I have many reasons for choosing a cane over a dog. Yes, I’ve thought them all through carefully. No, I don’t believe my life would be exponentially better if I had one. No, contrary to what you might expect, not all blind people use dogs. And, even if I did have a dog, I would not owe you the right to spend time with them.
People who actually do have dogs face a (much worse) variant of this behaviour all the time. Just last week, a handler friend lamented that while people ask her dog’s name constantly, they rarely ask for hers. Other handlers have mentioned the unpleasant reality that they will forever be upstaged by their dogs. Yet another friend noticed that if she left her dog at home here and there, people altered the way they interacted with her to such a degree that the difference was painful. People always want to touch the dog, talk to the dog, ask about the dog, take a picture with the dog, and compare the dog to their own beloved pets. Amid all their enthusiasm, they probably won’t bother to acknowledge the person attached to the harness. Most devastating of all, when handlers retire their dogs, they can expect to be asked “Where’s your dog?” far more often than “How are you?” Much like new mothers who discover that they are chopped liver next to their new baby, many of the handlers I’ve spoken to claim they feel invisible next to their dogs, and if they go out in the world without them, the public feels cheated.
Overriding the desire to fawn over a dog is hard, and it’s even more challenging to rewire our natural approaches to social situations. I’ve been “where’s your dogged” by people I’ve known for years and people I’ve known for five seconds. These off-putting comments have come from people who were otherwise impeccably polite, and who have since proven they see me as more than an express lane to doggie snuggles. Like so many issues I bring up here on this blog, this is not isolated to one group or location or personality type. This comes from everyone, it comes from everywhere, and many of us are far too courteous to call it out. When we do, we are quickly shouted down, sometimes by each other.
And so it goes on.
This is the paragraph where I usually insert some advice. This is the point where I present a solution, concluding with an inspiring call to action. This is also where I craft my social media quotes to tie it all together. This is, in other words, the useful part.
Except … I’ve got nothin’. All I can do is explain why this is a problem, do my best to contextualize it, and hope.
People are going to do what they do, but maybe the most well-meaning of them will read this and rethink. Dog handlers are so much more than the dogs by their sides. And I am so much more than the dog I don’t have.
Now, if we could please talk about something else, that’d be fabulous.
One of the most painful and scary experiences of my life happened about six months ago. Jenny spent 36 hours throwing up here and there, and then stopped eating. We admitted her to the emergency vet hospital on a Sunday evening. Come Monday morning I went to work with my white cane. No fewer than six people – commuters on the bus, pedestrians who work downtown, my building’s security staff – asked where my dog was. At that point, we didn’t have any concrete idea about what was wrong, and every time they asked I burst into frightened and embarrassed tears. I’d get my composure together, only to be asked again “Where’s the pup today?” and start the process all over.
The question seems innocent, inocuous, or even considerate… but depending on the situation… but it’s a loaded question, and I don’t think people realize it.
Thanks for writing this.
Thanks for reading, friend, and sharing your experiences. I wanted to go deeper concerning the sensitivity of the question. People who don’t have kids are often concealing fertility issues that are painful to discuss, and people don’t always realize that might be the case. It’s the same type of thing with dogs: maybe their dog is sick, or recently retired. Maybe they’d love to have a dog but can’t have one or are waiting for one and that wait is long and painful. It’s just kinder not to bring it up. But it seemed a little outside the scope of the post.
I get asked by people I know and people I don’t alike whether I’ve considered a guide dog. I think I’ve told you this on many of my comments on your blogs as well as on blindbeader’s blog posts. Often when I say I’m not ready for a dog people insist why a dog would be beneficial for me but then I tell them I don’t travel enough or have a job to justify it the question is okay to ask but I get sick of people trying to insist why a dog would be beneficial for me when I give my reasons and say no I shouldn’t have to justify myself to anybody.
I really respect you for knowing you’re not ready, and for being responsible enough to realize your lifestyle would not support a guide dog the way they deserve to be supported. You’re right that you shouldn’t have to justify yourself to anyone, and I’m sorry people have trouble accepting that sometimes.
Thanks for this…sighted people can truly be blind. I once escorted you to your school bus without you asking, I think I may have infringed on your rights and probably upset you without even realizing. Did I know if you were waiting for someone…well No, because I never asked. Thanks for helping me to see and my apologies. Sorry Meagan!!! Happy Spring!!!
Oh, trust me: these kinds of mistakes–of the social and spelling variety–are not at all confined to sighted people. We’re all works in progress.