Written By Katie Cuppy
I have had anxiety for almost all of my life. Crowds have always been a huge source of anxiety for me, even as a child. I vividly remember having panic attacks at large events, crowded stores, and busy places from a very young age. I think, initially, my fear of crowds did originate from my blindness. As a kid, I never learned how to use a cane, and really relied on my listening-skills to get around. Everywhere I went, I would listen to any auditory clues around me to get a better sense of my environment. Beeps from a check-out lane, humming from machines like water fountains or refrigerators, the sound of a door opening and closing, chairs being scooted in and out… I paid special attention to the subtle sound changes that occur when passing a large object, or walking alongside walls and buildings. I would also use auditory clues from people around me like the sound of footsteps or people chatting to get a better idea of my surroundings.
In a crowd, all of those auditory clues get distorted. There are too many people and too much commotion to notice those subtle sound changes. It can get too loud to hear and adequately rely on the noises in the environment. It can be pretty disorienting! I also just didn’t like the feeling of people surrounding me.
When I was 14 years old, I started learning how to use a cane. It was so refreshing to have another tool that I could use to gather information about the places I went! During my high school years, I worked really hard to develop good cane skills. I felt my confidence grow a lot more as a cane user. It was so much easier to navigate around school, stores, and neighborhoods. Navigating crowds became a bit easier, but the anxiety still remained.
When I went to college, my anxiety in crowds became worse. A university is such a crowded place to begin with, and I found it hard to adjust to constantly having to navigate through massive amounts of people. I began to isolate myself and avoided going anywhere too busy.
When I was a sophomore in college, I decided to apply for a guide dog. One of the biggest reasons I decided to apply was the hope that a guide dog would make it easier to navigate crowds, and eliminate some of the anxiety I felt. In August of 2015, I went to Guide Dogs for the Blind and met my first (and current) guide dog, Gabrielle. Everything changed when I met Gabrielle. I was amazed at how fast and smooth we walked together. The feeling of traveling with a guide dog really isn’t like any other. I gained so much confidence and freedom. The world felt limitless with Gabrielle by my side. She exceeded all of my hopes and dreams that I had when I decided to apply for a guide dog. My anxiety in crowds drastically diminished. Gabrielle seemed to thrive at the challenge of navigating through large crowds and busy areas. With my new-found confidence, I no longer avoided or dreaded going out.
Of course, Gabrielle went absolutely everywhere with me. I was so overjoyed and empowered to no longer feel fearful of going places, no matter how crowded they were. However, as Gabrielle and I grew as a team, so did the issue of fake service dogs, and the trend of taking pets into non-pet-friendly places. This instilled a brand new anxiety in me. Now, I constantly have the fear of encountering a pet or a fake service dog. After a few close calls and countless encounters with pets/fake SDs, I have become apprehensive about going on certain outings with Gabrielle. Especially to places where I know this is a huge problem. For example, I no longer take Gabrielle to Walmart, because every time I go, there are at least 2 dogs in the store on any given day. We have been approached and nearly attacked by several dogs at Walmart. For that particular outing, I just feel safer leaving Gabrielle at home.
Because it is such a huge problem now, my anxiety surrounding going out has returned, but for a different reason. I never know where or when we could encounter an aggressive dog. I think there is an additional fear because I can’t see if there is a dog in a place where it shouldn’t be. Of course, I am able to use some auditory clues if I hear dog tags or paws on the floor. But the dog has to be close for me to be able to pick up on that, and by then, it could be too late. I can’t see a dog from across an aisle to be able to avoid an encounter. I can’t visually read dogs’ body language to be able to gauge weather or not it is a threat to us. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t super hyper-vigilant.
Gabrielle has helped my anxiety in countless ways, but now this issue has caused me to have anxiety about taking her out. In a way, I feel as if my freedom has been stolen from me. I shouldn’t have to feel unsafe for having my service dog with me. I shouldn’t have to live in fear that a dog is going to attack her in a grocery store. I shouldn’t have to be hyper-vigilant when shopping at the mall. This issue has grown, and it is everywhere. It is so harmful to service dog handlers in ways that many people wouldn’t even think about. I don’t have all of the answers to how we solve the problem of fake service animals and pets in stores, but I do know that something needs to change!