Last week, I was in the checkout line at our local grocery store – with Fenwick in tow – when a good acquaintance got in line behind me. She knew already that we raise service dog puppies and commented about how well he seemed to be doing. After thanking her for her support, I confessed that I was actually so nervous about our visit to the store, my lower back physically hurt from the tension. What followed was a perfectly reasonable question: “What are you so nervous about?”
After considering her question, I listed the reasons, talking nonstop for over a minute. Her eyes widened as she said, “I had no idea there was so much to think about!”
See, a couple of months ago, I was asked if I would be able to bring Fenwick to a local Girl Scout troop meeting; I quickly agreed. We love to promote CCI whenever and wherever we can. Also, I always appreciate having enough time to answer some of the most commonly asked questions (“How can you give the dogs up??” or “What kinds of things do they need to learn?”) as well as dispel some of the more common misconceptions that we’ve encountered (“Oh, poor thing; he must hate having to wear that cape” and “Don’t they ever get to have any fun??” Answer: NO, NOT EVER.)
Plus? Sharing an adorable dog with a bunch of kids? Yes, please!
Once I agreed to attend the meeting, I promptly forgot all about it. I mean, it was on my calendar and in my to-do book and I’d figured out the logistics (pick up girls from swimming, eat dinner in the car, head over to the meeting place) and all that, but I wasn’t really thinking about it, if you know what I mean. Which kinda makes sense because, in the past, each time I’ve brought one of our CCI pups to a “formal” event, the dog has been totally prepped and ready so there’s been little for me to think about, per se.
Fenwick, however… Not so ready.
CCI is very clear with puppy raisers like us: we need to set a good example by only taking our dogs into public places when they’re up to the task. We work hard training our pups but are told not to take them out and about until we receive their “official” capes/vests (when the pups turn five months old, give or take). By then, it’s assumed that the dogs will be house trained, will have learned some basic commands, will walk appropriately on leash, and will behave in a way that, you know, befits a service dog.
I absolutely understand. We need to represent not only CCI but also the individuals who may eventually receive these dogs. The last thing I want to do is take a crazy, nutty furball into the mall, have it wreak havoc on the place, and put a sour taste regarding service dogs in everyone’s mouth.
Hence, we’ve been very careful about only taking our pups out in public when we feel they’re ready to do so. It’s always a gradual thing – first, dashing into the post office to drop a package in the slot. Next, a five minute, middle-of-the-day run to an uncrowded Starbucks. If those go well, maybe we’ll take the dog to the library while we look at books for fifteen minutes. Eventually, as the pup succeeds at each progressively more advanced/difficult task, we work our way through trips to Target, going to restaurants and movies, navigating the grocery store, and even traveling on planes. By the time we finally bring the dogs into school to meet the girls’ classmates, they’re more than good to go.
Fenwick received his official CCI cape in December and we decided to take him with us to a quick meal at Panera the next day. It did not go well. Turns out our little dude was not ready. At all. Pulling on the leash, refusing to sit, nipping at people’s hands, wriggling out from under the table, darting toward every door. We made it through but vowed that it would be a nice long while until he was ready to go out in public again.
Fast forward to a couple of days before the Girl Scout meeting when it suddenly dawned on me that, despite having not gone out in public even once since our disastrous Panera escapade, I needed to present Fenwick to these girls. Not just “present”… but represent CCI in a positive way. And, um, not look like a total schmuck with an unruly service dog.
So, with only a few days left until the Big Reveal, I did the only thing I felt was fitting: I jumped in with both feet. Or four paws. There was no time to slowly help Fenwick acclimate to public outings; I had to know immediately if he was up to the task of meeting these Scouts (’cause if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t bring him — that wouldn’t be helpful for any of us). Which is why I decided that his first foray into the real world would be a trip to the grocery store. Not just any trip, either… My Official Weekly Grocery Run – the one that would take at least an hour (even if the store was miraculously uncrowded) and which would require me to traverse every single aisle of the store and pile my cart with a gazillion items and bags.
This was the kind of outing to which you couldn’t pay me to take my ten year-old — yet there I was, my not-quite-six-month-old puppy beside me as I weighed produce and considered the merits of unsweetened-vanilla versus regular-vanilla almond milk. Every step was so tense, I could feel the spasms building in my back.
It wasn’t until my friendly acquaintance in the checkout line asked me why I’d been so nervous that I stopped to consider all that was required for a successful visit to the store – but when I did, I was actually a little astounded at how complex a simple trip to Wegmans turns out to be. To wit:
* Fenwick could have an accident. Obviously, I stopped to have him do his business before we went into the store, but even that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult convincing a dog to pee or poop on concrete or asphalt (Fen’s actually pretty good at this, but you still never know if they’re going to have problems in-store, a la Jambi with the apples, omg…).
* He’d never even seen, much less had to walk quietly and calmly beside, a grocery cart and I had no idea if it would freak him out or not (it didn’t). I also didn’t know if he’d figure out how to walk beside a cart and not pull away or get his paws run over or step right in front of me and entangle me with his leash (he didn’t).
* He – like several of our other CCI dogs – might have wigged out when the automatic doors opened as we entered the store and the warm air whooshed past us and refused to even move (he didn’t particularly like the doors, but he kept walking).
* He might not have liked the smooth floor and decided not to take another step. (Good thing it’s not at all embarrassing when this happens and you find yourself literally dragging your dog across the store as her claws scrape against the tiles. Thankfully, Fenwick didn’t mind.)
* He’d never had food in such close proximity (we keep it away from him at the house), and certainly not fresh, unpackaged food right at his level (helloooo, tantalizing apples and oranges and tomatoes and bananas and every single item in the produce section) and I had no idea if he’d lunge for it or lick it (he did neither).
* The number of people at the store, especially in the more crowded areas, could have made him nervous and he might pull on his leash, cower, become hyper, or anything else that demonstrated anxiety (he did seem a little uncertain about the busyness of the setting, but he handled it quite well).
* When people come up to pet him (because they always do, even though he’s wearing his WORKING DOG vest), he might not have greeted them properly; he’s supposed to sit or stand still and calmly allow people to pet him. This can take a lot of getting used to because many of our dogs get excited when people pay them attention. (His furry rump left the ground a few times when people approached him, but a reminder from me got his butt back in gear.)
* He’s mouthy. I don’t mean that he bites or that he’s aggressive, but just that he likes to explore things – and people – with his mouth, licking and prodding with his nose, walking right up to someone and nudging their hand, sometimes gently using his teeth. It’s something that we’re actively working on with him – teaching him appropriate interactions – but it’s definitely a work in progress and I didn’t really want to test his resolve by tempting him with the hands of 392 customers. (He did lick a little but otherwise kept to himself.)
* He might have “forgotten” all of his commands and refused to listen to me, making an ass out of both of us and also potentially getting himself into trouble or danger (thankfully, to paraphrase my girls’ preschool teachers, he used his listening ears superbly).
In short, going out in public with a service animal – especially to large and crowded and sensory-overloading places like the grocery store – requires a heckuva lot of coordination, patience, and thinking. Because Fen is our fourth CCI pup, we’ve got the mental checklist fairly well memorized and we are alert to potential bumps in the road, which certainly helps… but dogs – like toddlers and teenagers – are unpredictable.
In the end, Fenwick did a bang-up job. There are definitely a few things we need to work on, but given that he’s only six months old, that’s more than okay. I knew that he could handle meeting the Girl Scouts and that he’d represent CCI nicely; our visit went off without a hitch!
I don’t recommend that you choose your weekly grocery run for your service pup-in-training’s first big outing, but if you do, I hope your dog does as well as Fenwick and that your back holds out better than mine. And if you happen to see someone out and about with a service animal, maybe take a moment to remember that there’s a lot going on for both the animal and the person with it. If they don’t stop to chat with you or only smile politely when you acknowledge their animal, don’t take it personally; their minds might be occupied making sure that the outing is as successful as possible for everyone involved.
Or maybe they’re just rude, in which case you probably didn’t want to have a conversation with them anyway. No worries; Fenwick and I would be happy to hang out any day.