by Veronica Morris, PhD
When considering the working position of a small service dog, the trend in the community is to focus on what “looks professional” instead of having a focus on what best mitigates the person’s disability or what works best for the team.
This article will explore my evolution as a person with a small service dog who was focused more on appearances over the assistance my dog could provide me, to a person who focused instead on a disability rights based perspective. Read it if you want to understand this new perspective, plus how service dog pouching can make sense for some people.
My medium and large service dog history
My first two service dogs were medium and large dogs (18 and 27 inches at the shoulder), respectively. I found while working a medium-sized dog, Sabrina, that she was too small for me to interact with her while walking along. That’s when I often need disability mitigation from tactile stimulation. She was also too large to provide pressure therapy on my lap when I was seated in classes or restaurants when my anxiety often flares. She was still able to assist me in many ways, but it was not ideal for me.
My second service dog, Ollie, was a large breed. I could reach down and touch his head while walking. While seated, he would stand in front of me and put his head in my lap for pressure therapy. He was happy to stand, but this is unusual. These forms of assistance while walking and while seated in regular chairs were awesome for me.
When I was looking for my third service dog, I realized that a small dog could lie on my lap so my dog didn’t have to stand the whole time I was seated to provide pressure therapy. And I realized I could carry my dog when I was in motion to provide assistance when I needed it. The smaller size and lower energy levels were better for me as a frequent traveler who is not regularly very active.
When I got Hestia—my first small dog—I still had a lot of internalized stigma about small dogs and the importance of “looking professional”, not looking like a “faker”, and so on. I felt that whenever I was carrying Hestia, people were more likely to think badly of us as a team.
I also felt that I couldn’t show off her training if she were carried, so people might think she was simply an untrained ESA (emotional support animal). I was afraid of losing the respect and kudos of people who would watch my Youtube videos and comment on my Facebook posts.
But Hestia is unable to help me from the ground. She can’t alert while being that far away from my face. Most importantly, she can’t provide grounding, pressure therapy, or tactile stimulation on the floor. Even so, for some reason I persisted in thinking she needed to mainly work from the floor.
When I was having a particularly hard time, I would carry or pouch her (put her in a sling across my chest, with her head sticking out). But always as soon as I felt even a little bit better, I’d put her back on the floor. I was just too worried about others’ perceptions of us as a team, and not worried about how well she was able to actually do her job.
Hestia is happy to work on the floor, and at 9 pounds she’s large enough that most of the time she’s not in danger. However when I got my fourth dog to train—who topped out at almost 5 pounds—things changed.
Alice is in much more danger working on the floor in general. Additionally, she is just happier and more comfortable working from the pouch or in my arms.
I still think it’s important to train a dog to be able to work on the floor in case carrying or pouching is not an option due to illness, injury, or another reason. So I spent a lot of time training Alice on the floor in safe areas. But there were plenty of areas that were not safe, or times when Alice just preferred to be pouched, so I wound up pouching Alice a lot more frequently.
I noticed something amazing.
Whenever Alice was pouched, even if I didn’t have super high anxiety to begin with, my baseline anxiety was much lower. I was happier, less stressed, and more relaxed and able to enjoy myself when Alice was pouched. When she was close to my chest, she could do pressure therapy, grounding, and tactile stimulation like she was trained to. My outlook on the world started to change.
I realized that the reason I had been so insistent in working Hestia on the floor was because of my fear of what others would think. I needed to shift my perspective to a disability rights perspective.
The disability rights perspective
In this context, the disability rights perspective is one that puts the wellbeing of the disabled person first. Instead of focusing on what makes abled people most comfortable—which might even be never seeing a disabled person—it focuses on the humanity of disabled people and how we are best able to live our lives.
Sometimes the accommodations disabled people need make abled people (and even other disabled people!) uncomfortable. This is not a good reason to fight the accommodation.
As a person with low self-esteem, it’s hard for me to put my needs first above the comfort of others. Throughout my service dog journey, I’ve slowly come to terms with doing so.
First, it was using a dog at all. Then, it was getting used to the idea of a small service dog. Now, I’m finally coming to terms with pouching a small dog so I can live a better disabled life without worrying about anyone else’s passing discomfort.
I am a firm believer that we need to do what helps our disabilities the most (as long as everyone’s safe), not what others think we should do. Coming to terms with the fact that I should pouch my dog as their default working position has been an exercise in putting this belief into practice.
Bonus: below is a video my spouse and I made for my Youtube channel and blog about the benefits and drawbacks of service dogs of different sizes. In it, I talk about the benefits of small dogs working from a carried or pouched position.