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Madeline Messa and her service dog, Amor, stand in front of the United States Capitol Building in Washington D.C. during a club trip with Penn State’s College Democrats on Nov. 9, 2019.

Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

That held true for me in my first week as a service dog handler. Amor is an Australian Shepherd trained to mitigate the disabling effects autism has on me. He trained for his full 18 months of life to handle the challenges that I would put him through in my daily activities — and he is doing phenomenally.

The public, however, made me regret ever having dared to hope that a service dog could ameliorate the traumatic anxiety that comes with a simple grocery run or, God forbid, a weekend trip to a city that I had been planning for months.

I was painfully aware of every stare. Strangers gawked and pointed. They whispered, thinking I could not hear them. I shied away from the phone cameras that were tilted slyly in my direction, I avoided eye contact when people cooed “aws” and whistled. My insides shriveled whenever a parent encouraged their child to run up to Amor or a grown adult felt it was okay to pat him on the head despite him being labeled in capitalized letters as a service dog.

I was being catcalled for having a dog that is clearly working to help with a disability.

A service dog giving a quick glance at you or accidentally nudging you in a crowd does not grant you permission to interact with them. Even if you know not to pet them, you do just as much damage by staring or talking behind their handler’s back.

The primary reason for me to have my service dog is to cope with social interactions that are ordinary for the average person, but debilitating for me. My dog does everything perfectly, but the sheer amount of unrelenting attention is devastating. When Amor alerts me that I’ve been unconsciously digging my nails into my skin because of sensory overload, all strangers perceive it as is a cute dog jumping up in an entertaining performance.

We are not a circus act. We are not a zoo exhibition. Your attention is harmful to both my mental state and my service dog’s ability to work.

Amor stayed focused on me when a metro in bustling Washington D.C. whirred by and unsettled me. He continued to heel when blue and red illuminated the block as a police siren wailed amid a rowdy protest. He snapped upright to paw at and interrupt me when I repeatedly flipped my hair over and fidgeted with my hands despite being in a restaurant filled with appetizing smells that would throw off any other dog.

And he comforted me when I fully broke down on a hotel lobby floor because I could not handle people the way he could.

Yet, an utter stranger intercepting us to ask what breed he is and to reminisce about their niece having a similar-looking dog would halt Amor completely, reflecting how uncomfortable we both were with the situation.

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Madeline Messa takes photos for a class with her service dog, Amor, in front of Old Main on Nov. 4, 2019.

Being on a college campus, my peers are often aware that they cannot pet a service dog. However, they still find ways to force interactions or otherwise disrupt us. I do not want you to approach me to tell me you had a dream about a dog last night, I don’t care that your cousin has an Australian Shepherd and it is inappropriate to ask about my personal medical information.

Think of a service dog as a wheelchair or any other medical equipment — just because my disability is not visible does not mean I do not have one, so don’t assume that I am training Amor for someone else. It is not a victimless offense when you prod me with your eyes and ask your friend, “What do you think is wrong with her?” or when you bombard me with invasive questions or even when you comment on how cute my dog is.

Leave us alone, divert your attention elsewhere and understand that a handler is just as sensitive to their surroundings as their dog is. And please — do not make me regret getting a service dog when neither he nor I have done anything wrong.

It sounds insensitive, but the public needs to realize that I have Amor for the very purpose of improving my life and making social interactions tolerable. If seeing a dog makes you happy, great. But I don’t want your attention. Amor really does improve my life; don’t ruin that for us.

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