The Importance of Boundaries for Introverts with Service Dogs

Hi, my name is Anneliese, I’m blind, i have a service dog, and I am an introvert.

I’m guessing you knew most of those things about me already, but a lot of people mistake my willingness to educate, good eye contact, and active lifestyle for extroversion. I really am an introvert. My day starts best with 2.5 hours of solitude, usually very quiet with no music or tv in the background or anything. I function best when I have about 30 minutes to transition between going out and doing things and coming home and doing things. I thrive on deep conversations with one or two people and avoid crowds and large groups whenever possible.

I’m lucky to have a small, tightly-knit group of introverted friends who all have variations on the same needs, and a remarkably understanding extroverted husband who makes an effort to build in quiet time when we plan trips together. But my natural inclination toward educating the public about service dogs and disability issues, and my professional listening skills tend to fool strangers into thinking I’m a great repository for daily minutia, complex family drama, and personal tragedies.

Of course, some of that could be the dog…

There’s a reason that emotional support animals are a thing. Dogs, frequently called “man’s best friend,” tend to have a calming, comforting effect on people. And until recently, it was so unusual to see a dog out in public that curiosity and need work like magnetic forces to draw those in want of a listening ear my way.

I swear I have met everyone who has even heard of a German shepherd dog in my city. That’s the conversation starter made by a lady at a grocery store, or the guy at the table next to me in a coffee shop. “My cousin has a shepherd…” followed by an expectant silence.

The instructors at The Seeing Eye warned me and my classmates repeatedly about the social complications of having a service dog. Beyond people misunderstanding their legal presence or petting without permission, they told us all sorts of people would strike up conversations with us because of our new mobility aids. They gave us thorough lectures on how to be polite and how to educate about service dog rights and training boundaries. But no one told me once that it was ok to say nothing, to disengage before the other person was satisfied.

We were all adults, of course. Perhaps they thought this permission was implied. But introverts spend much of their lives being told their reticence or early disengagements are rude. We could always use affirmation of our rights to privacy. And given that we make up at least Half the population, it’s about time we started hearing that as a standard part of any training.

So, my introverted service dog users, let me say it. You can say “no.” You can even say nothing.

Your service dog is not their emotional support dog.

Here are three tips for enforcing social boundaries when working a service dog:

1. Err on the Side of Blindness

Many times I struggle to determine if someone is talking to me or a different person because, though i can fake giving it, I can’t receive eye contact. If I’m not addressed by name, I have to guess based on the direction of the person’s voice, context of the comment, and their proximity to me. But I get it wrong almost as often as I get it right. So, when someone decides my dog is an invitation for small talk…well, I just “get it wrong.”

“But wait — what if you’re the only person with a dog present? Doesn’t that make it inescapably obvious? Ignoring someone like that would be rude!”

But I’m blind! How do I know if there isn’t another perfectly, silently, well-behaved service dog around?

If people are going to insist on using sight-oriented body language to communicate then they can’t fault me for missing it. But this trick only works if you tell anyone traveling with you not to give you away…

The end result is about 30 seconds of awkward silence, then you can assume that whoever tried to start talking to you has gone back to their phone. The situation is over, no need to spend mental energy wondering if they took it badly or if you’ve committed some sort of major social blunder. If it was a big deal, they’d’ve told you. And if it was, and they didn’t, that’s on them.

2. Declare Your Need

If it’s acceptable for a stranger to ask for your time and attention to talk about their long history of being a pet owner, then it’s just as acceptable for you to say “I’m not really in the mood to talk right now,” or “I’m really enjoying being on my own right now.” If that feels too forthright, make it a request, but it’s not like they asked if you wanted to talk in the first place. Your declaration deserves as much respect as theirs.

In my experience, when someone is confronted with another person’s desire for solitude, they politely back off. For the most part they seem to treat what I consider intrusive behavior as a mild-mannered invitation that can be just as mildly refused.

Do I perceive that invitation as intrusive and aggressive because it feels unnatural and unwanted? Possibly. But these strangers have never given me cause to doubt their willingness to play by the same rules they’ve established. It’s my responsibility to recognize and declare my own needs in the spirit they’ve declared theirs.

3. Use an Extroverted Shield

Most introverts have at least one extrovert in their life, given the afore-mentioned population composition. Introverts and Extroverts each bring unique traits to a Relationship, and ought to be willing to put those different skills at each other’s disposal.

My husband has gotten pretty good at noticing when I’m not in the mood for people, even if I don’t think to say it overtly. I do try, because I don’t expect him to read my mind, but it’s nice when he takes the initiative and fields unwanted questions and conversations.Now,

This gets a little tricky when it comes to discrimination and education. My friends and husband have all encountered times when a store employee, server at a restaurant, or other official person we’re interacting with chooses to talk to them about me instead of trying to communicate with me directly. They all take a step back, nod at me, and keep quiet so the offender is forced to interact with me and my needs on an equal basis. But we’re not talking about that here.

We’re talking about the lonely old lady who maneuvers her shopping cart over into the next check-out line just to strike up a conversation about her Yorkies.

I have a great deal of sympathy for those who live such solitary lives that the majority of their social interaction comes from grocery-store encounters. But just because I feel for them doesn’t mean I have the Spoons to help them. My husband usually has a lot more social spoons available, though.

Once the initial “is that a service dog? Wow, those dogs are so well-trained…mine would be bouncing all over the place!” Comments are done, he frequently takes over, sometimes even maneuvering himself between us to give me a physical separation from the conversation. It’s a priceless gift, to have a friend or family member or coworker who’ll take the punches like that.

Working a service dog in public has given me the opportunity to educate a large number of small children, curious adults, and helpful employees about service dogs and inclusivity. I’ve also had the unique privilege of helping one or two people through very fresh grief over recently deceased pets. I’ve connected strangers with service dog schools for themselves or their relatives, and gotten wonderful long-term friendships and networking opportunities through random dog-generated encounters.

But I have also listened with gritted teeth to dozens of hours of painfully awkward and continuous small talk. I’ve felt the headache building behind my eyes and known I wouldn’t have the energy or focus I wanted for my next task or activity because of the encounter. I have had to learn how to ignore, to say no, or retreat behind an extrovert when available. Sometimes I have even left events or errands early in order to escape the cloying fascination of those who can’t take a hint. I’m not willing to put up with that anymore because of how it affects my work, my relationships, and my mental health.

Service dogs aren’t just for extroverts. We the quiet ones can thrive with furry four-footed functionaries. But we must take responsibility for our needs, learn how to both communicate them and enforce them, and not cross our own boundaries. We must not slurp up responsibility for every disappointed expression or sigh. We must not imagine words of frustration or condemnation into others’ heads, and then feel bad about them. Boundaries aren’t just for keeping things out, they are also for keeping us in.

Boundaries are a hot topic in mental health circles right now. As a therapist, if I were to recommend one book on the subject to my readers it would be Boundaries: When to Say yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by dr.s Cloud and Townsend. They combine excellent psychology and sociology with Biblical principles to prepare readers to take responsibility and control of their needs and boundaries in almost every situation. they also have several books published in the same series aimed at more specific situations like marriage, business leadership, and various stages of child-rearing.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to reflect on a situation where you feel your boundaries are regularly violated. What can you do to reinforce yourself?

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