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.