Trans Service Dog Handler

Something not a lot of people know: I have a service dog.  When I was 18 my depression was manifesting in dissociative episodes that were only made worse by medication.  California law regarding assistance animals is amongst the most liberal in the country so I talked to my parents and my therapist and we decided a dog might not be a bad idea.

I love my service dog.  She’s like an extension of me now, I can’t imagine going anywhere without her.  However, having a dog while coming out made life rather more difficult.

First there was the practical side.  I got kicked out when I came out to my parents.  For a while I was homeless.  My dissociative episodes had gone away when I came out to myself, but came back when I was homeless.  Trying to find a shelter that will take in someone with a service dog is damned near impossible.  The response was generally “well there’s an animal shelter over there.”  Just in case anyone’s wondering, you have to train a service dog to stay home when they’re hitting retirement age.  Simply ripping them apart from their person is a great way to traumatise them.  That’s even assuming I could have survived without her which, at that point, wasn’t very likely.  She was the only reason I hadn’t cracked completely.

The problems didn’t entirely stop even once we had a place to live.  There are a few things you get used to having a service animal.  You have to advocate for yourself to be allowed in stores, you have to explain to your doctor, in the case of psychiatric assistance animals you have to explain why you can’t just “buck up and deal with it”.  You have to get used to people staring at you.  People look at you when you have a service dog.  They want to stop and pet the dog or ask you questions.  Kids are drawn to you like magnets.  All of that can pose a problem when you’re in the awkward, just starting out phases of transition.

There is no hiding if you are a trans person with a service dog.  There is no melding into the background and hoping people won’t notice you.  They will and they will probably come up and talk.  If you are visibly gender variant and considering a service dog you need to understand this.  All service dog handlers are warned about unwanted interaction with people, but it’s especially true of people who look ‘different’ in any way.

Now, the upside to this is that most people don’t want to talk to you, they want to pet the dog.  If you have a dog who can handle that (mine can, but she’s been specifically trained for it) it’s not so bad.  You have to allocate an extra half hour to go anywhere because you’ll be stopped by 15 kids on the way, but it’s not horrible.  If your dog is the type who gets distracted from work when pet (or comes from a training organisation that discourages petting) you’ll have to get used to saying a firm ‘no’.  A very firm no.  For some reason people can’t seem to get that word through their heads unless it’s accompanied by “fuck off”.

You also have to learn to deal with doctors.  When doing intake to start T I had to answer a bunch of questions to make sure I was capable of giving informed consent.  Let me tell you, telling the intake coordinator that you have a service dog due to dissociative episodes from depression does not make you look particularly sane.  I can’t really blame them, but it was still frustrating to have to explain myself.  It doesn’t stop either, every time I see a new doctor I have to convince them that I’m rational enough to stay on T.  If I just tell them the dog’s for my epilepsy (which she’s also been trained for now) it’s a bit better, but then they get all worked up about the possible physical effects.  It’s a bit of a no-win situation, you just have to learn to fight with them.

There are a few cool things about having a service dog.  She is great at helping me make friends.  If you’re in a new group of people having a service dog is an instant ice breaker.  Sometimes the response isn’t entirely positive, but there’s always someone who wants to come up, talk, and pet the dog.

She’s also pretty good at warding off violence.  Something about that bright service dog vest just screams “too pathetic to kill” to would-be bashers.  I’ve been bashed with her with me before (retraining after that is hell), but it’s far less common.

I do recommend that you train your dog to go into an instant sit-stay when someone else has their leash.  Part of this is in case you ever need emergency medical treatment, but it’s also because a dog who bites even in defense of you is likely to be considered unfit for work.  Some dogs have been put down for defending their handlers.  That’s not even getting into the PETA wankers who think it’s cool to try “liberating” service dogs.  I’ve taught mine an emergency command that essentially means “do not move unless the ground opens up beneath you” for situations like that.

There is a ton to think about if you’re considering a service dog, but even more if you’re trans — particularly early transition trans.  Know that while a dog will likely make parts of your life easier, they will also make parts harder.  Transition tends to be one of those.  It’s not impossible, not by any means, but it’s more of a challenge.  If you don’t want extra attention while you’re in the ‘in between’ phase a dog is probably not the best idea.  If you are at all worried about being kicked out wait to get the dog.  I am not kidding.  As much as my dog helped me get through that, it wasn’t fair to her.  Your dog relies on you for virtually everything, it’s like having a really helpful three year old.  Make sure you take both of your needs into account before you decide.

9 Replies to “Trans Service Dog Handler”

  1. My dog isn’t a service dog, but does come with me a lot of places (where he’s allowed, anyway). He’s not friendly towards strangers and I have trouble with people just reaching out to pet him without asking; I can’t imagine having him with me at all times for that reason. People can be so inconvenient. Heh. :p

    A big reason I ended up getting my dog actually was to deter violence. I feel safer having him with me. I reason that if I pass someone who wants to shit-disturb, they’ll pick someone without a dog before someone with one.

    • Yeah, most people aren’t willing to deal with a potentially dangerous animal just to beat the queer. My dog is a complete lovey who probably would never hurt anyone, but they don’t need to know that. Even I don’t know it for sure, if she was hurt badly enough or I was screaming loudly enough all the training in the world wouldn’t be a guarantee.

  2. I’m one of those rare people who avoids dogs – if I see one coming toward me I cross the street. Too bad there weren’t more of us, heh?

  3. So, I just wanted to ask if you kind of, have any tips for one who is dissociative and doesn’t get along with his life?

    I wouldn’t really know what to tell you about me, I never found anyone to ask for advice before ^^ I have depressions and only discovered today I’m dissociative again. I’m terrified about telling my therapist, because regarding the law in our country, having mpd I probably will start T in a minimal 10 years if I’m LUCKY.

    Those episodes went away after I came out to myself as trans and gay, but are back now… I don’t really know the reason. I’m quite desperate and don’t know who to talk to. So… yeah. I’m grateful for any advice…^^ thank you…

    • Blech, I’m sorry, this somehow got tossed to my spam. (I really need to check that more often.)

      As for tips…I honestly don’t know. I’ve been working on my coping skills for years and I still have dissociative episodes on occasion. The only thing that’s helped me is my dog. She can’t fix everything (she’s a dog, not a nursemaid), but I at least don’t have to worry about leaving my house and wandering into the street because my brain decided it hates me. Other than that it’s a matter of learning my triggers and trying to avoid them. Which isn’t always possible so it’s frustrating.

  4. Hi Aiden! I love your blog/website!

    A friend of mine that is also a service dog handler linked me here and I just wanted to say thanks for writing this. I don’t know many gay transmen that are also service dog handlers so I had a lot of questions about most of the issues that you mentioned. It really helped in thinking about what I might come across in the future when I’m out and about with my service dog during different stages of transition and problems that might come up. I actually didn’t think about the issue with doctors and T.

    Anyways I hope you will consider writing more posts about your service dog handling experience and how you handle public access challenges. I’d love to learn/hear more. Do questions about your transition ever come up mixed in with questions about your service dog? or do most people tend to focus on one rather than both?


    • Hey. I may write more in the future. This post is a bit rambling and off the top of my head, looking at it I didn’t cover half of what I meant to. It may take a bit though, at the moment I’m spending most of my free time training the puppy I’m hoping will let my current service dog retire.

  5. Ok so I’ve been researching Emotional Support Animals and it says on most websites you can qualify for one if you have “Gender Identity Disorder” and I wanted to know why? Like is it just the emotions that come with it? I don’t know if you will have any idea but I’m sure suuuppeer curious. Thanks!

    • Technically an ESA isn’t a service animal. It’s simply an animal that provides emotional support by existing. A person’s pet cat, for instance, qualifies as an emotional support animal if petting it makes them feel less anxious. ESAs do not have the level of freedoms and protections that service animals (now I’m fairly certain limited to dogs, but I’ve never had a service pony so I’m not sure) do. They are not allowed in shops and other establishments that do not generally allow pets, they are not required to be allowed on public transportation, about the only areas they have some level of protection are housing (you can’t ban someone from keeping their ESA or count it as a pet) and air travel (where airlines are allowed to ask for proof, unlike with service animals). Because of that the qualifications for having one basically come down to “does the animal make you feel better?” Pretty much anyone with a therapist can qualify for one, even without an official diagnosis of any sort.

      Service animals, on the other hand, are legally required to be specifically trained to perform tasks to help mitigate their handler’s condition. For instance, my service dog was trained to ensure I got to specific places at specific times, bring my medication to me at certain times of day, stand over me if I had a seizure, and a ton of other very specific, very difficult to train tasks that the average family dog isn’t expected to do. I can’t think of anything a dog could be trained to do to mitigate the effects of GD specifically. Anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other mental health challenges that often come with being trans, yeah, depending on the person, but GD isn’t helped by much of anything external. Not like a dog can administer T injections (and even if one could, the task has to be something that can’t reasonably be done by the person or a family member. Like, my dog being trained to bring my medication was because I also have multiple compounding executive functioning disorders so remembering my medication is far more of a struggle than for most people).

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