My daughter, Gracie, turns 14 next week. And looking at her you might not know what a miracle that is. Her hair is bright “unicorn colors,” she is never without Converse sneakers, and like you would expect from a teenager, there is often a cell phone in her hand. But Gracie is not your typical teenager. She is a warrior. A warrior who has spent the past 5 years battling autoimmune encephalitis, a condition in which her body attacked her brain and a mitochondrial disorder that has more than once left her for dead.
Life for Gracie is fragile. And to get all she can out of it, she needs a few extra supports. For instance, Gracie relies on a port in her chest for monthly infusions and a tube in her stomach for constant nutrition. These supports are easy to conceal and do not beg constant explanations. Her other support, though, a seizure alert dog named Auggie, draws everyone’s eyes.
And while Gracie is so proud of her dog, and never minds explaining what she does, the function Auggie performs is no less vital than the equipment in her body, and people are no more entitled to touch Auggie than they would be the tube hanging from Gracie’s stomach. But many do not understand that. And it endangers my girl. Because if Auggie is not “tasking,” she could miss the scent telling her to alert and Gracie could easily find herself on the floor of an unfamiliar space, seizing.
Auggie was trained for 18 months by a professional agency. She knows Gracie will seize about 5 minutes before she does and alerts her, so she can minimize dangers. Auggie is also trained to get help if something triggers a seizure without warning. Since she has been home Gracie, has experienced no hospitalizations for the fallout from seizures. Auggie gives Gracie the ability to live out a normal life and me the confidence to let her.
But sometimes the curiosity and entitlement of people threaten that. And it is infuriating.
It happened just this past Friday.
I had run into Walmart, on my way to my son’s football practice. He needed a mouthguard. As we walked past jewelry, Gracie asked if she could stay and look. At first, I said no. Then I looked at Auggie and was reminded my hope when she came home was, she could give Gracie more independence, so I agreed. Gracie said, “I’ll call if I need you.” And she did, hysterical. She kept saying “Mama, they’re yelling. They won’t stop following me. All I said is she’s a service dog. Mama, help.”
When I found her and asked who, she pointed to two ladies. Calmly, I approached them and asked what happened? Was there a problem? Was someone afraid? And with profanity they started screaming about her, and her dog being in a store and following them. Another lady joined in. Then, from all the stimulation Gracie went into a seizure. And Auggie laid over her, keeping her safe and licking her face. All the while the original lady never stopped screaming. Her own children looked afraid.
Security came and helped me get Gracie up and into their office. On the cameras we watched and could see two children approaching Auggie. And Gracie calmly speaking to them. Then her screaming at a confused child. Gracie asked her dog not be pet, and it escalated. To a point that could have been deadly. It is inexcusable. Not that the children approached, but that an adult could not respect a child’s boundary or medical equipment.
Please, for the love of everything people DO NOT TOUCH a service dog, and teach your children to stand back, too. Dogs like Auggie may be cuter than oxygen monitors and feeding tubes, but they are every bit as important. And if they are looking at you and getting scratches and belly rubs their eyes are off their person, and that can be deadly.
Auggie is a happy dog. And she is the apple of Gracie’s eye. She loves being cuddled, sleeps beside her mama on a pillow with her favorite stuffy and has two boxes overflowing with toys. She plays fetch and enjoys homemade puppy treats like any other dog, but when she and Gracie are out, and when her vest is on, she knows it is time for business. The service dog life is not for every pup, but it is perfect for her.
Gracie’s trip to the store ended with charges being pressed on her aggressors. But the impact was so much greater. We left with two broken hearts. The very dog meant to give Gracie independence and safety inadvertently put her in a scary and dangerous situation. Not because of anything they did, but because somebody else could not accept that the dog had a greater purpose than amusing them. And now because of their selfishness a girl and her dog, neither of whom have a mean bone in their body, have a new fear of the world around them.
Take this as a teachable moment. Those who ask you not to pet their service dogs aren’t selfish or mean they are just trying to stay alive.