Tales from a service dog: what I want the public to know about me and my handler

person in wheelchair with Canine Companions service dog

Canine Companions® graduates are the best ambassadors for our mission. Please enjoy the blog below from guest blogger and Canine Companions graduate, Ryan Honick, submitted on behalf of his service dog, Pico. This blog was originally posted on Ryan’s Linkdin.

The following is a public service announcement brought to you by Pico Honick, service dog.

It’s hard to believe, but this past February marked four years from the day Canine Companions for Independence® matched me with my handler. To some, he’s Ryan the Professional. To others, he’s Ryan the Goofball. To me? He’ll always be “The Tyrant with the Leash.” I say this with love, of course, and I’ve earned the right to say it. I’ve been his right hand—and sometimes his left—for almost half a decade, and we’ve been through a lot together. In fact, every day is an adventure, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to school you on what life’s like as a service dog, and share some of the basic stuff that’s important for you, as a member of the general public, to know.

1). I’m highly trained. Do you know how hard it was to land this gig? I spent two years training before getting matched with Ryan. 18 months of that was with my volunteer puppy raiser, (Hi, Amy!), and I spent another six months at the Northeast region of Canine Companions where I mastered over 40 commands. I survived a rigorous training schedule and am one of the mere 55 percent of pups who have successfully proved they have the skills, temperament, and stamina to do the tough things this job requires. I am, in short, the cream of the crop.

This is one of the many reasons it really sticks in my paw when I see you slap a vest you bought online on your beloved pet. Just because a guy’s wearing a Michael Jordan jersey doesn’t make him Michael Jordan. It makes him, at best, an admirer, and, at worst, an impostor. And if he happens to trash the place or behave like a foolio in public? Guess who suffers the consequences? You may get hit with a fine depending on the state you’re in, but more importantly, the next time I’m out, I’m the one who will be stared at and left to fight the stigma associated with service dogs because of what your untrained pooch did. You’re tearing me apart, dumb dumb. Note to self Contact Weird Al for collaborative effort parodying Bon Jovi with “You Give Service Dogs a Bad Name.”

2). I need to focus. Do I come into your office and talk your ear off about my weekend plans, or show you dog videos on YouTube while you’re trying to write? Of course not. That’s because I’ve got a job to do, and I take my work seriously. So please, for the love of dogma, let me work. Even if it looks like I’m not working, I am. Don’t pet me, play with me, make kissy noises at me, or do anything that prevents me from focusing on the one thing I’ve been trained to do: help my handler. I’ve got discipline, and you taunting me with anything your pet dog may enjoy could throw me off my game. I’ve got patches on both sides of my vest and a bright neon yellow leash wrap that screams “DO NOT PET.” I’ve also got a note tucked under my collar that says “help me” but that’s a story for another time….

3). I’m medically necessary. Let’s just tell it like it is: I’ve seen this dude on his own. It’s not pretty. He’s stumbling, falling over, constantly exhausted, and can barely remember what day it is. That’s why I’m around. I make life a little easier and ease the stress on his body, too. I can open doors, drawers, retrieve and deliver items, and, when his Amazon Alexa “malfunctions,” I can even turn light switches on and off with ease. I’m here to help 24/7/365, but I can only do that if I’m with Ryan. That’s why federal law ensures anywhere he goes, I’m his guaranteed plus one. Other assistance dogs can try, but like The Lord of the Rings, I’m the one dog to rule them all. Emotional support dogs (ESAs), therapy dogs, and even puppies in training aren’t guaranteed access like me. We’re a package deal, period. That means restaurants, clubs, sports arenas, hospitals, hotels, even ride share platforms like Lyft and Uber must accommodate us. It’s taken some time, but both of these companies have finally cracked down on drivers who refuse to pick us up for fear I’ll “mess up their ride.” I never understood this one. I spent two years in training, unlike the drunk guy you picked up at 2 a.m. last Friday who yakked all over your back seat. It’s a sweet gig, but getting businesses to follow the law isn’t always easy. I’m looking at you, Stonewall.

While we’re on the subject, “medically necessary” also means that if for some reason I get knocked on my tail, medically or otherwise, Ryan and I are both out of commission. He’s my lifeline as much as I’m his.

4). I don’t need documentation. That’s right sports fans. I worked my tail off to get to the big dance and I don’t need credentials to go anywhere. Heck, I don’t even need a uniform according to federal law. Shirts or skins, it doesn’t matter. Most of the time, I only wear my vest to make it blatantly obvious that I’m working. Plus, I’m a dog. If I walk around “naked” all the time people get handsy. (Remember the whole “do not pet” thing?) In addition, there’s absolutely nothing my handler needs to carry around with him, either. We’re U.S. citizens, and anywhere Ryan can go, I’m allowed to go with him. End of story. The only two things you need to know are 1). I’m a service dog required for Ryan’s disability and 2). I’m trained to perform certain necessary tasks. Beyond that, it’s not our job to prove anything to you. If you want a demo, I’ll invite you to my next meet and greet with fans. For $20, I’ll even throw in a selfie.

5). Questions are fine, most of the time. I get it. To you, I’m a rock star, and, in a way, I am. When I have doggy dreams, I’m in a room full of people chanting my name. “Pico! Pico! Pico!” I am really good at my job, and I’ve proven it day-in and day-out for years. And, while I appreciate being recognized (it happens), the more likely scenario is a well-meaning onslaught of questions Ryan has to answer over and over again. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are my stats. Soak ‘em in:
Name: Pico (aliases: Pico Man, Pico D. Pup, Pico De Gallo, His Royal Peekness, and The Prime Minister)
Breed: Purebred Labrador Retriever
Age: 6
Current Position: Service Dog, 2014 – Present
Special Skills: Opening and closing doors and drawers; turning light switches on and off; retrieving and delivering items; reducing anxiety; offering non-stop cuddles and kisses; acting as a casual conversation-starter.
Relationship Status: Ryan is my one and only handler, but I’m available for play on nights and weekends.
What I’m looking for: A place to lay down until Ryan needs me. Toys that squeak, tennis balls, and…where did I put that Nylabone?
I really should get this stuff printed on a baseball card.
In all seriousness, if you’ve got questions, please feel free to ask. We’re both here to educate and inform. But let us at least have our coffee first. Deal?

6). I get plenty of play time. The Canine Companions slogan may be #giveadogajob, but just like most employees, I get vacation and good health insurance, too. In fact, I would argue my benefits are likely better than yours. I work hard, and I play harder. I’ll work a pretty rigorous day (with lots of naps), and then I get to come home and unwind, just like you. Sometimes that involves chewing on a bone, playing fetch, snuggling on the couch while watching TV, or just passing the heck out on my dog bed while enjoying the wonderful world of doggy dreams. (The latest one involved Ryan and I switching places, and I was his handler. Boy, was that grand!)

Truthfully, I get plenty of freedom, and if I need my space, I know where to get it. I’m spoiled rotten and content as could be. I couldn’t ask for anything more. OK, maybe a second helping of dinner … damn is that stuff good.

7). We know what we’re doing. You want me to get on a crowded elevator? No, thanks. Both Ryan and I need plenty of space to do our thing. You see an open space for an able-bodied person walking upright. I see 10 people crammed into a tight space, including three kids under the age of five, a stressed out mom with a double wide stroller, the businessman in a dark suit (who I may inadvertently shed on in such tight quarters), and the guy with headphones on who, because he’s engrossed in his music, probably isn’t paying attention to what’s going on around him.

The two of us working together is like a well-choreographed dance routine. We’ve rehearsed it a thousand times and know exactly how it goes. We know just how much space we need, and when and where it’s safe for us to operate. You may think a given scenario is safe, but you don’t know us like we do. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ll stick to whatever plan Ryan has in store for us.

8). Please be mindful of what you say to us. Before you tell me you wish you could bring your dog with you to the office or everywhere you go—and talk about how “cool” that would be, remember that I am medically necessary. Yes, Ryan and I have fun every day, and I truly enjoy my work, but I’m around to help Ryan with his day-to-day life. He has a medically diagnosed disability that affects his daily life and he and I are protected by the ADA. So the next time you see us and think how much you wish Fido was by your side all day, ask yourself: would you really be willing to switch places and live your life as a person with a disability for the privilege of having a service dog?

Well, that’s it. Hopefully you understand a little more about my job, why it’s important, and how I work to help Ryan every day. Each working team is unique and how they choose to work together or approach the scenarios outlined above may be different, too. Regardless, the relationship between a service dog and their handler is a sacred bond. My hope is that after reading this, the next time you encounter us or any one of the roughly 387,000 working service dog teams across the country, you’ll have a deeper appreciation and understanding for them.

If you’re still curious or have additional questions, you can ask Ryan. I’d answer them myself, but I think it’s time for a nap.