In this article, we interview three service dog community members in mid-2018 to learn how they handle the dance of dating or romantic relationships while they have service dogs. This is already a challenging aspect of life for many of us—what does it mean to have a service dog in the mix?
How would you describe yourself?
M: I am a 46 y/o disabled heterosexual woman with PTSD, Bipolar II, and GAD. I have been in my current relationship since 2003. I have been partnered with a SD since 2009. [Editor’s note: PTSD = Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, GAD = Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and SD = service dog]
Danny: I’m a 31-year-old man with a 7.5-year-old black lab service dog named Sheldon. My sexual orientation is “polyflux”, which basically means that whom I’m attracted to and what gender I look for in a mate can vary/cycle when I’m on the market. It’s easy for me to settle on a particular person I like, though, and I’m currently in a long-term relationship with a man named Evan.
Avery: I am a professional dog trainer and disabled service dog handler. I am a student in my mid twenties and would be considered a “super senior” by my peers, meaning I have been in college for what feels like forever! I currently live in California with my 3-year-old Aussie service dog, Béla.
What was your relationship/dating like when a service dog first entered the mix?
M: My partner was stationed overseas with the military when I was diagnosed with non-combat PTSD and a SD was recommended for me, so he didn’t meet my SD until after we finished our training.
My partner tried to be supportive. However, given the distance, his lack of understanding of SD, and his complete unfamiliarity with dog training in general, he wasn’t as encouraging as I wanted him to be. I felt pretty alone.
Danny: I had given up on love, after being single for seven years. I had been dealing with severe mental health challenges including schizoaffective disorder (depressive subtype) and OCD, among others, and had decided that I was unlovable. I was in and out of the hospital and day treatment a lot, and didn’t think there was any reason anyone would find me attractive. I wasn’t at all confident and didn’t even try dating. I later found out that there were probably people flirting with me, but since I can’t read social cues very well, I couldn’t tell. Getting a service dog made me much more comfortable, self-confident, and stable, which made me feel more attractive. [Editor’s note: OCD = Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder]
Avery: I partnered with my first service dog fairly recently, in 2014. Prior to that, I had been considerably active in the dating scene. However, with the onset of my illness, it became harder and harder for me to maintain relationships; I was still struggling incredibly hard to just take care of myself, let alone anyone else! I was single when I started training my service dog, and didn’t get into a relationship again until she was about a year old. So my partner at the time never knew me without Béla.
What are the main challenges your relationship/dating has had to overcome because of your service dog use? Any advice on getting through them?
M: Initially, I felt my partner was embarrassed to be in public with such an obviously disabled person, which made me more self-conscious than I already was as a new SD handler. I also struggled with my identity as a disabled person, so I didn’t feel very desirable.
My partner had no clue about how state and federal law protect SD handlers, so he was reluctant to go new places with me. Our first overnight trip was a disaster; he called the hotel ahead of time—despite my telling him not to do so—and assured the clerk that I had the “proper documentation” for my SD. I had to spend an hour educating the hotel staff before they allowed us to go to our room, which frustrated me a great deal.
Danny: Our biggest ongoing challenge as a couple is that Evan is a huge introvert and I’m super extroverted, when I’m doing well. Sometimes Evan gets tired of the constant attention from the public and the ridiculous interactions we have with curious onlookers every time we go out. To deal with this, we occasionally schedule a play date for Sheldon at a trusted friend’s house, then go out on a date together without Sheldon. It can be hard for me sometimes, but Evan and I get to enjoy each other’s company, uninterrupted, and I know Sheldon is getting some bonus playtime and exercise with well-behaved dogs and someone to watch out for him. We try to balance that out with more dates with Sheldon there, and special nights in, in our apartment where we can be free of the constant scrutiny of the public, but still do something fun, like watch a movie and eat good food.
Avery: One of the main challenges I faced in the relationship was attempting to define when it was acceptable to interact with Béla. I was too lenient at first, and allowed my partner to interact with her too often. As a result, whenever my service dog saw my partner, she started to become overly excited and distracted. By the time I finally drew the line and asked that Béla be ignored, it was too late. All of her meticulous training flew out the window any time she saw my partner. Since she couldn’t do her job, we slowly stopped seeing each other in person. It put a huge strain on the relationship, which ended up not working out. Béla’s situation wasn’t the only reason the relationship failed, but I would be lying if I said it played no part in that deciding factor.
It was also a tricky thing to try and divide my attention equally between my partner and my service dog. Frequently, Béla’s training would require that I was fully attentive to her, which I think was hard on the other person. Public outings were always a gamble; sometimes I wouldn’t need to cater exclusively to her, but other times I would. This was not a good pairing with a partner who also experienced mental illness and required more attention than most.
Has there been any benefit to your relationship/dating from you having a service dog? Any new possibilities or perspective?
M: The real benefit I have found is that having a SD makes me happier and more self-confident, which makes me a better partner.
Danny: YES! I have so much more self-confidence now! I’m so much happier and healthier with my service dog in the picture. I don’t think I would’ve been stable enough or healthy and recovery-focused enough to successfully date without my service dog. I knew Evan was a good potential partner when he was super respectful of my service dog and knew not to distract him right off the bat. He had been taught about service dogs when he was a little kid and knew how to behave around them, so he never even asked to pet Sheldon before we got to know each other better and I gave him permission, when Sheldon was off-duty, of course!
By making my disability visible, Sheldon is a good screening tool for people who I don’t want to go out with. If someone treats me like a little kid or disrespectfully because of my disability, I know I wouldn’t want to date them anyway. It’s easier to find out who won’t be okay with my disability right away.
Avery: Having a service dog while in the dating scene does provide some benefits. It makes my invisible disability quite apparent, so there is no shock or surprise later down the line if I choose to divulge that information to a potential partner. It also acts like a filter to deter all the people who aren’t willing to date someone with a disability. If my date goes well, I know with full confidence that there is no ambiguity and that they are aware of my limitations and accept me with my service dog.
It can also be an opportunity to educate someone who would otherwise have no prior knowledge on the topic of disability. My service dog is a great gateway for open-ended, deeper conversation. Being an advocate for human rights, I try and spread as much information as I can to anyone I meet. Even if the date itself isn’t successful, I can at least know that there is one more person in the world who is knowledgable about service dogs and disabilities.
What advice would you give to someone who’s on the dating scene and is thinking they need a service dog for their disability? What about someone in a long-term relationship? What do you wish you had known?
M: Dating is always hard, but I imagine being a single SD handler is harder! Be open and honest with your potential romantic partner(s). You don’t need to disclose everything about yourself to every single person you meet, but make sure that your date will be comfortable being in public with you and your SD. Don’t agree to leave your SD at home to make your date more comfortable; it sets up the expectation that you can manage alone.
In long term relationships, I think it is important to involve your partner in your everyday life in a meaningful way. Find activities you both enjoy that can easily include your SD. Share your struggles and triumphs as a SD handler with your partner. Go to counseling together to keep a positive dialogue going between you.
Danny: I would say, go for it! The more self-sufficient you are and the better you’re able to manage your disability, the more attractive you will be to the right people. One thing my partner was attracted to in me when we met was how independent and strong I was, which in large part, was due to training Sheldon and managing my disability better than I had without Sheldon. Also, be aware that most people are going to want to talk to you about your dog first, instead of yourself. You can do little tricks to refocus the person on you, like if someone says, “he’s so cute!” about your dog, you can say something like, “and the dog’s not bad, either!” to get them thinking about you and how funny you are instead of your dog.
In a long term relationship, I would make sure to get your partner on board with it, so they can be a helpful support while you’re going through all the stressful parts of getting set up with a service dog, whether that be going to a school to get paired with a dog, or whether you’re owner-training. Also, give them one of the PSDP friends and family pamphlets to read, so they can learn from other people’s experience. Make sure you spend special time with your partner to help them remember they are just as loved as your service dog. You will likely develop a special bond with your service dog, so keep in mind that your partner needs attention, too.
Avery: My advice to someone who’s on the dating scene and is thinking about getting a service dog is: don’t worry what other people will think. Do what is best for you, first. The amount of confidence and self security you have around your disability and potential service dog will dictate how others see you. Don’t limit yourself or prevent yourself from meeting new people purely based on your prediction of how they’ll react to you! Chances are, you will be more likely to catch someone’s attention with a cute pup.
In a long term relationship, make sure to set up boundaries and limitations on how much your partner can interact with your service dog. It would also be a good idea to meticulously define your expectations of how you want them to react in different situations when something like an access issue arises; do you want them to speak up for you or would you rather handle it yourself?
If there is one thing I’m really pushing myself to do more of, it’s being more upfront about who I am, including my disabilities. It is important to me for potential partners to understand why I am the way I am, and what latent motivations drive me. I am done with trying to beat around the bush and politely skirt around the topic during conversations with dates. Be proud of who you are, service dog and all!