So, I get asked this one question a lot.
And it probably isn't the question you're thinking of.
It isn't, "Is that a service dog?"
It's not, "What does he do for you? You don't look disabled."
The question - believe it or not - is something along the lines of: Do you pet him at home?
Owen is exceedingly spoiled. I don't think it's possible for a dog to be spoiled (in healthy, dog-appropriate ways) anymore than Owen is. He eats food that is leaps and bounds above what I eat. He "wears" gear that costs more than anything I have ever bought in my whole life. I take better care of his nails than I do of my own. I give Owen regular "massages" on his shoulders and upper back (where the harness sits). He gets groomed all the time and has oodles of toys and good chew things. He even has a cat to play with 24/7!
People act surprised that Owen gets to be primarily off-duty at home. So, here I am, clearing the air.
Owen never wears his harness at home. That is a "going out" harness. Do I struggle to keep my balance at home? Sure. I'm slow and careful on the stairs going to and from my apartment. In my apartment I wobble and keep my arms outstretched to help me balance. I still tap walls and door frames inside my home. Occasionally, I still fall. When I do, Owen is right there to help me get up.
When he helps me get up, I'm not putting my whole weight on him. In fact, I barely put any weight on him at all. I use him to balance. I put one hand on my knee (like I would anyway), and the other hand on his back. He gets told the command "stand" twice; the first time to stand, and the second time to brace (they used to teach the command "brace" but it sounded too similar to "break" which caused confusion). Having him to balance with when there isn't something else nearby makes a huge difference. But he isn't in his harness at home.
I suck it up going to and from my truck. The other morning I was unstable and hit a patch of ice and went down. Owen was a little upset that I had fallen, but he helped me get up and we went on our way. When we take walks, he isn't in his gear. He's allowed to wander on-leash and sniff things and just be a dog. He still has to mind though; if I say "here", I expect him to come here immediately. Practicing these things is good, it encourages him minding me at all times - even when he is "off-duty". Owen has to mind his manners regardless of where we are; he gets told "quiet" if he barks at home and gets told "enough" when playtime gets too rough for me (he likes to jump on top of me on the couch, ignoring whatever is in my lap). He is expected to ignore other dogs (within reason) when he is off duty, I don't allow him to pull towards anything or anybody. But he is still allowed to be a dog, just a well-behaved dog, when he is off-duty.
Owen is expected to do deep pressure therapy at home, but he loves it. The other night I invited him up on the couch and he immediately settled right on top of me and fell asleep. For Owen, DPT is a chance to snuggle - he loves doing it and will do it any chance I give him. It's not "work".
I'm shocked that people don't realize that a service dog does get a chance to be a pet. Just because I don't want random people petting Owen, doesn't mean I don't pet him. It means I don't want you petting him. Just because he is expected to be calm and quiet out in public doesn't mean he has to be that way all the time. Owen is a naturally calm dog; they had to pair me with a chill dog who doesn't take things personally (I couldn't begin to count the number of times I walk into Owen or drop things on/near him). Owen is slow and steady where I need him to be. But he still gets zoomies like other animals and can act like a complete goofball when he wants to.
If there were anything I could do to give Owen a better life, I would do it. We added in more exercise into our routine this week because he was getting destructive at night. (The whole story is on our facebook page.) But as far as Owen is concerned, he's got a pretty good life. He gets to go with his person everywhere she goes (with the exception of a few places - like when I go to the gym for crazy busy classes), he eats good food, he has lots of toys and he even gets peanut butter once in a while.
Wednesday night, in my grad class (6 other people and one professor I am very comfortable with) Owen had a great night. He was a total stinker when we went to class; I went to get him situated under my desk and when I told him "under" he went under. And kept going. All the desks were pushed together, so Owen started wandering around under the tables looking for suckers to pet him. He came right back when I called him and laid down at my feet, completely angelic. I was so impressed with the other grad students. Nobody paid him any attention at all; no pets, no looks, nothing. It was great. Had somebody pet him (or even looked at him), it would have reinforced the wandering under tables behavior. Instead though, he got a correction from me and no attention from anybody in the classroom. In Owen's mind, why would he ever do that again?
After class we were hanging around talking informally for a bit and Owen was doing a "paws up" with me. I told him "all done" and decided to give him some "off-duty" time. This was something I would never ever do in any other class setting. But the people in this class know me very well; they have seen me on the floor ticcing, unable to sit in desks. They listen to me chirp and squawk in the observation room. They help me out when I need it; whether that's carrying stuff or always being the scribe during group assignments. They get me. So I took Owen's gear off and told him "okay".
Oh my gosh, you've never seen a happier dog. He couldn't figure out who to visit with first, and he got tons of pets. Off-duty time ended when he tried to do a "paws-up" in my professor's lap. Whoops! She kind of patted her legs and leaned back in her chair a bit, a clear "signal" to Owen. He knew he had made a goof though, and he got a few more pets before he went back to work. He was a perfect gentleman on the way out.
With people I know, I'm comfortable with them petting Owen. He got lots of pets in the office at school today while I was doing some paperwork. He and I are working on differentiating "work" from "off-duty" time, even at school. And so far he is doing quite well with it. Obviously, if he were to start acting distracted at school, the pets would stop. But for now, Owen loves getting to go to campus and I'm happy to let him keep enjoying it as long as he remembers he has a job to do.
Good service dog owners make sure that their dogs have time for play and downtime. It's about finding a balance; when we start working as teachers (because yes, Owen will get to be a teacher too), I will have to make sure he gets downtime at school. I pay close attention to Owen, looking for stress signals while we are working. If we were in a situation where Owen wasn't comfortable and I didn't feel like we could work through it, we would leave. And when we start working longer days, Owen and I will have to work harder to make sure we have that downtime in our schedule so he doesn't get burnt out.
So no, just because I won't let you pet my dog, doesn't mean I don't show him any affection whatsoever. I love this crazy, goofy dog - and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him.