The similarities and many differences between service dogs and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
For people who have experienced CSA, this post contains brief descriptions of some of my personal experiences that may be triggers for you. This is not my intent and I encourage you to not read this post if you have concerns about handling trigger responses.
Some dogs are bred to be service animals. Others are just magic dogs that seem born for this mission. Either way, they are intensely screened, groomed and trained to spend their life meeting the needs of a human being. Whether it’s mobility, alerting or calming work, a service dog’s function is to serve. They are lifesavers, they are bridges to the outside world and without them their handlers would have many more limitations placed upon them. A great many of these people would not be alive if not for their service dog.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is quite clear on what a service dog is and what it is not, and one of the things it is not is a pet. However, despite this ADA classification, service dogs are pets and family members in the sense that the people they serve love them and shower them with affection and loud praise to anyone who will listen. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, though. They are noble, amazing creatures for whom service is their raison d’être. At least from our perspective.
I wonder, some nights, how do they feel about the arrangement? Do they see the world and their place within it the same as we do- selfless, heroic, even patriotic? Or do they have an entirely different perspective?
Do they see themselves as sentient beings functionally objectified into servitude? Have we stifled them to the point of rendering them incapable of even having an awareness of their own needs? Or rather, have we manipulated them to the point where our needs ARE their needs?
I think about these things because I am a service animal, too.
My abuser taught me that my role is to meet the needs of other people, regardless of the consequences to me. I exist to serve, so screamed his body and so screams the little boy still cowering inside me.
I recently shared my story in an earlier blog post. As I dig deeper into the trauma I experienced, I have moments of clarity that are both enlightening and frightening. I am connecting dots that explain who I am more fully and honestly. I am beginning to understand myself better and I don’t always like what I see. Being a service animal isn’t easy, but it’s always hardest when I’m attending to my own needs.
You see, I define myself in relation to other people’s happiness and fulfillment, and to the extent that I contribute to it, I feel good or I feel bad. If my husband is okay, then so am I. If a friend is unhappy, my job is to fix it. If someone is angry, then it is my fault and I work double-time to undo whatever I did- even if it wasn’t me who did whatever I’m trying to undo.
My needs are your needs and saying no is not an option. I only say, Yes. I only ask, How much more? or What else? or Did I do it right?
Those may be my questions, but what I really want to know is, Am I a good boy? That’s the answer I need to hear.
I wonder if service dogs feel the same way? I wonder if their motivation to sniff IEDs or impending seizures is to hear an “‘atta boy” at the end of the day? Or am I just projecting?
Though it happens in very different contexts and for polar opposite reasons, both service dogs and victims of childhood sexual abuse are both trained and groomed. We have more in common than most people realize. For both dog and child, training starts early in life.
For service dogs, training involves temperament assessments, a foundation of basic obedience and then intense task-specific training that can last for years. They are groomed for a life of service in the noblest of definition of that word. The bond between a service dog and their person, I imagine, is an intensely personal one. I suspect it is symbiotic, healthy and nurturing for both ends of the leash.
Grooming a child for sexual abuse is different. As explained by Dr. Michael Welner, grooming “is the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship.” Later, he continues, “At a stage of sufficient emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs through talking, pictures, even creating situations (like swimming) in which both offender and victim are naked.”
The two doors at the top of the stairs were always kept closed. His bedroom was down there and he liked his privacy. It was thirteen slow steps down but only seven leaps back up. I learned at an early age how to clear a stairwell quickly.
It was usually dark down there. Sometimes, he would turn on a few floor lamps that cast big shadows. That was always my first clue, an ambient warning to prepare.
It started with Farrah Fawcett. One day, he pointed to that poster of her taped to the wall and described how he would masturbate to her. The next time he talked about her, he started touching himself.
Soon, he started showing me his pornography collection. He would point to pictures in magazines and tell me what he liked about it. He would describe in great detail what was happening on the television screen and what he would do to that body, how it would taste, how it would feel, how it would make him happy. The women in these photographs and movies were objects in his mind: he never said, “her”, always “it” or “that”.
I now realize that I, too, was an “it”, an object of pleasure, otherwise inconsequential and of no concern to him.
Dogs and humankind have had a mutually beneficial relationship for thousands of years and the use of service dogs is a natural extension of that relationship. The process of training a service dog is humane and inspired by a higher purpose. The dog’s nature- his likes, dislikes and temperament- are critical to identifying dogs who will excel at this work. Their needs are always considered and they are never forcibly pushed into the role of helper. It is work they can do or not; the dog is given a choice.
Grooming a child for sexual abuse is sadistic, pathological and it leads to abusive behavior that affects the child for the rest of his life. Men, in particular, often do not begin to address the consequences of CSA until they are well into their thirties or forties. These men spend half of their lives living in an acute traumatic state and the other half healing and moving on. For the record, I am 44 and only recently started to even acknowledge my abuse.
My journey towards healing is a new one, and many things are still raw for me. I am in therapy. I take medication for intense anxiety and other symptoms. One thing I’ve learned is that I was taught at an early age to never speak. Speaking leads to punishment and more abuse. In my case, I wasn’t believed when I spoke up, so I never did again.
Given this, it is not a coincidence that I’ve found my voice on the written page. Writing is safe. Writing is done in private, behind the safety of locked doors, with a dog in my lap, a dog at my feet and two dogs, one on each side, snoring softly on the sofa. Everyone has a breaking point and the little boy inside me has reached his. He is raging through walls he constructed for safety and he is screaming to be heard. I’ve learned to start listening to him and I am trying to honor him by sharing pieces of his story.
If you are a survivor of CSA, I strongly encourage you to seek support. 1in6 is an organization focused on male survivors of CSA. You can connect with them here. Another great organization is RAINN. You can find them here.