Assistance isn’t a big enough word for what Pepper the wonder dog does for me.
Yet some people see “assistance dog” and think she is a “pet with a vest”. I often get people approach us and say “but what does she do?”. Currently I am feeling like talking about her, so if you ask me nicely and without a sneer (this happens) I am likely to tell you.
But just keep in mind, there are a couple of issues with this:
- Assistance dogs (even those in training) have very specific tasks that are linked to their human handlers disability, AND…
- I don’t have to disclose my disability to you. Even if you are the restaurant owner (she is allowed to be there with me). Would you ask someone why they wear glasses? No? Then you do not need to know my disability (even though I am public about that – not everyone is, so don’t put people in that position). I am always happy to discuss how clever Pepper is though!
AND I’ve now written this post! So, yes, there is a bit of educational stuff below, but then read on and you get to the interesting bit of what she does for me. Plus I need to add, what a fantastic life she has with me.
So first, let’s clear some things up:
- She is protected by federal legislation even when a trainee. Assistance dogs in Australia do not get trainee status overnight, they must pass preliminary standards and testing. And for the record, it’s a long, expensive and intense process and people with disabilities don’t just wake up one day and decide to do this, it’s not a choice like a pet is.
- There are only two places she cannot legally be. One is an operating theatre and the other is inside a commercial kitchen. As a trainee she cannot yet fly inside an aircraft with me, but she will be able to eventually.
- We use “assistance dog” in Australia. She is technically a service dog, but that language gets confused with dogs that serve in the Police or military.
- There is no such thing as a “companion dog” in Australia. They are not accredited and don’t have the same legal rights. There is good reason for that, but that is another post in itself. We do have “therapy dogs” in Australia, but a dog can’t be both an assistance dog and a therapy dog.
- Don’t distract the dog. Avoid patting them and eye contact and definitely don’t whistle or click or try and call them. The reason is the bond they have with their human is primary to them they are working dogs.
- Assistance dogs are not just one particular breed. It’s about temperament and the bond with the human handler, not breed. Traditionally some breeds have been favoured but this is changing.
- Pepper does not do anything she doesn’t want to do and has a very comfortable life. That’s a key thing about cruelty free training methods and that builds the kind of bond she and I have. The moment she looks like she doesn’t want to do something, we don’t do it. Usually the reason she won’t want to is because she’s tired or she thinks it will heighten my anxiety. So she really is the boss. Part of the assessment is how enthusiastic she is when that vest goes on. You may have read that dogs like to work alongside humans, I believe this to be true. She is a very content and loved doggo.
Now, to the interesting bit about her tasks:
- Pepper helps detect dangerously high blood pressure. She knows my scent and biorhythms so well she knows when my blood pressure is up. She whines at me when I haven’t taken medication. This is also why you should avoid distracting her.
- Pepper detects changes in my heartrate. She is better than my Fitbit heartrate monitor. She slows me down when I am getting anxious. She has been known to knock my mobile phone away from me when I am getting stressed over a post online. She will slow her walk to make me slow or lean into me. This is the signal I know to change direction or change what I am doing.
- Pepper helps me navigate crowded streets and venues. She gives me physical space from people. As an autistic person this is vital to my well being. Plus she comes to comedy gigs with me. As someone who experiences sensory overload and is literally frightened of crowds but also fiercely independent, the help she gives helps me manage energy levels. She is super relaxed and chilled out and no sounds or crowds bothers her. Again, she is totally the boss of me.
Finally in November 2019 – she literally saved my life. I was suicidal and she curled her body around me and touched her nose to my cheek every now and then as I grappled with trying to work through the urge to take my own life. This is not a choice for me, it is part of my disabilities that I manage that my brain sometimes does this to me – particularly after a period of stress or, in this case, a workplace injury.
The life expectancy of autistic people is 36 – 52, I’m 50 this year. I’ve made a promise to do my best to stay on this earth for the rest of Pepper’s life (she is 6 and greyhounds generally live until they are 13 or 14).
I’ve had an interesting life and I’ve done my best to fill it with experiences I love. I intend on keeping doing that, with Pepper’s love and help for as long as my brain and body will let me. I’m realistic about this and I would honestly just like to see 55. With Pepper around I know I can do that.
Assistance isn’t a big enough word at all. I like Pepper the Wonder Dog better.