Two years ago Don Watson began training with his service dog, a golden lab named Waldie. Watson is a veteran who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and before he had Waldie he never went out in public.
With the help of his dog, Watson is more comfortable going to busy places and less likely to be hit with a panic attack. But, because of frequent and unwelcomed interactions with him and his dog, this is not always the case.
“Often times when we’re out in public having coffee, people will come running up to the dog and pet him,” explained Watson’s daughter, Krista Janssen. “Parents point out the dog to the kids and just distract him, even though he always goes out in vest.”
People will come up to him to pet him, ask questions about him or talk loudly about him. This causes distraction for both Waldie and Watson, which can in turn be triggering for someone with an anxiety disorder.
On top of that, when Watson tells people to please not touch his service animal he is often faced with a negative response.
|Don Watson and his service dog Waldie on Remembrance Day. Watson is a veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD, and Waldie helps him go out in public. (File contributed/ Don Watson)|
“When they’re told ‘no’, they can get extremely rude about it,” Janssen said. “A lot of the times the dog is there, especially for the veterans, because they have severe PTSD, so going out in public is big deal… the negative reactions they get is a huge trigger forward and it can snowball the effects to last the rest of the day.”
For Watson it feels like Waldie can be both a blessing and a curse, helping him go out while also causing a lot of attention.
“It’s like a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get out as it is, there are a lot of days that we do go out that I don’t want to talk to people, but they come talk to me… would you ever go up to someone in a wheelchair to talk to them about how beautiful the chair is?
I’m mentally disabled in some ways, and I need the dog like a quadriplegic needs a wheelchair. I need him to get around, just as someone with broken legs needs crutches.”
It’s not just the general public who are ignorant to service dog etiquette, but also local businesses unaware of the legal rights of persons with service dogs.
Watson recalled one Duncan restaurant where he was refused service this spring, because of Waldie. Watson proceeded to sit down in a booth and refused to leave until he was served, reminding staff of his legal rights. In response, the manager pulled the fire alarm in the restaurant to evacuate the building. Consequently, the owner of the restaurant heard from the chain’s headquarters and lost franchise rights and had to close.
Watson also faces criticism from people who tell him he doesn’t look like he needs a service dog.
“It’s none of your business why I have a service dog, it’s personal,” he said.
Service dogs can be used for a variety of different medical conditions including diabetes, epilepsy, PTSD and vision loss.
Watson and experts from the service dog field advocate for the general public to be aware of when dogs are wearing their service dog vests. If they are working, it is recommended to ignore the dog and to not distract it by touching it or talking to it.
“He’s not just here to look good,” Watson said. “He’s there to do a job.”