Usually when we think of pet professions, our minds eye is filled with images of dogs, cats, horses, and other animals. Humans are usually a blur in the background. Interviewing the humans of the pet professions brings light to so many matters that we often take for granted. Rarely do those breaking into a pet industry profession think about all the nuances that go into our fields. Even more so do we ignore those on the edges of the industry.
Today I am interviewing Regina Lizik. Regina is the content editor at Animal Farm Foundation. She is also freelance writer for The Daily Beast, and the geek culture website Nerd Bastards. She has also written for The BarkPost , The Gloss, Feminist Sonar and HerStoryArc. Previously, she reviewed iOS apps for The Unofficial Apple Weblog until the site’s shut down in early 2015. Regina also spends her time as a service dog advocate, sharing her experiences with her Shiba Inu Service Dog Buttons. He's pretty famous!
What I find so powerful about Regina is that she is disabled - legally blind and yet her muse is the written word. The beauty and raw expression that comes from her "sight" is moving in so many ways. I wanted to interview Regina because I am a firm believer that our perception of things is a huge factor in both our profession and for the animal world in general. Regina creates a vision of the world that we are all better for.
M: How are you involved in the pet industry and how long have you been doing what you do?
R: In 2015, I became an editor at BarkPost, where I got to amplify the stories of dogs in need, as well as dogs who’ve found their forever homes. It was a great vehicle to advocate for adoption. Today I am the content editor at Animal Farm Foundation a nonprofit working to secure equal treatment and opportunity for "pit bull" dogs.
I also run a FB page about my guide dog, Buttons. Right now, we have over 7,000 followers, which is pretty great because we’ve never done any paid posts and I believe I launched the page in April of this year. The goal for the page is to raise awareness about service dogs - especially unconventional ones and owner trained ones.
M: It seems like today everyone has a blog, but professional blogging is a pretty unique niche. I admit I met you through your work as a blogger. You're very talented. And of course I'm partial to the fact you write a lot about Shibas. Especially Buttons, your service dog. How do you find you express your uniqueness in your work?
R: If I look at my work at BarkPost, and my work with Buttons, I think it’s really about showcasing that all dogs have something that makes them special. Dogs really are unique, courageous, and resilient.
I feel a deep, emotional connection with dogs. That started with Buttons, and it’s only blossomed. I feel a responsibility to share dogs’ stories.
In the case of Buttons’ page, to an extent, it is about me and what it’s like to live with a disability, but I also want people to shed their preconceived notions about what a particular type of dog can do. Shibas get labelled as a difficult breed, but that’s not true, they’re just different. You have to approach them differently. I want people to remember that when they encounter a so-called “difficult breed” or a “difficult dog.” I hope they’ll think of Buttons and his story.
That story is really powerful. He’s a rescue from a hoarding situation. When I first got him, he was afraid of trash bags. We lived in NYC and when he’d walk passed a bag and the wind would rustle it, he’d nearly jump out of his fur. That’s just one example of the fear and anxiety he had being thrust into the big city. It was a really hard and long road, but now, he’s not even scared of fireworks. And he’s a guide dog. He saves my life almost every day. That’s a huge journey for a dog to go on. I want people to know that type of thing is possible.
M: Buttons really is a very special dog. Given I am partial to Shibas but you two are quite the team. I can think of many "traditional" working breeds that wouldn't necessarily be as resilient as Buttons has been. I love that you have worked so hard to share your experience. How did you build your following and eventually your career?
R: Buttons was the start of my journey, and I started to connect to the dog-world through him. That eventually led me to BarkPost and that just put me on this amazing path.
While I was at BarkPost, I was the Viral Editor and people always called me “Queen of the Headlines.” (No pressure, right!?) People would ask me my secret, and it was really just looking for the emotion. What will make people connect with this story? What different perspective can I give them? Finding an unexpected emotional connection and following that thread leads you to a magical place.
You know, as I’m explaining this, I realize that’s also the story of me and Buttons. I was convinced he hated me for the longest time - I almost gave him back to the rescue because I thought he was so miserable! NYC Shiba Rescue knew better, they knew we belonged together. Once I found our emotional thread, we clicked and from there, we both knew we never wanted to be away from one another.
M: You're not the first one to say that they "clicked" emotionally with their Shiba. I can attest to that as well. I find that that connection inspires me to do obedience with my Shibas. Clearly your inspiration flows outward. Tell me more about your inspiration?
R: Again, it’s that emotional thread. I want to talk about and address what moves people. If you can find that, you can motivate them to make a change and impact the world.
When I was writing about dogs for BarkPost, what inspired me was that I knew I could save a dog’s life. I could write about a dog and touch the right emotion in the right people and save a dog from death row. People would send me messages on my personal FB, telling me that my article saved a dog’s life. There’s nothing better than that. That instilled in me a sense of responsibility and gratefulness - gratefulness that I could touch people’s lives and motivate them to save a life.
M: You inspire me! With your outpouring of empathy and compassion I'm sure that is draining. What do you do to get back on track when you’re in a funk?
R: This is a hard one. I’ll be honest, I struggle with severe depression. In many ways, I feel like I live in a constant funk. With that sort of comes the feeling that maybe I’m just a fraud, like maybe my success has just been pure luck and not talent. When I get those fears, I shut down and don’t really write anything - or really speak much. But I heard great advice once, which was “write what you need.” I work through words, that’s how make an impact. So, when I feel like a fraud, when I feel like I don’t have anything real to offer, I just write. Sometimes it ends up reading like bad teenage poetry, but other times, it’s something solid. Even if it is bad teenage poetry, it’s getting those demons out of my head.
M: Well I know you're not a fraud. Far from it. Like you said before, you save lives and change lives. But I get the Imposter Syndrome challenges. I think a lot of us go through that more often than we would like to admit. How do you practice self care?
R: Sometimes writing feels like pressure, because as much as it is a love of my life, it’s also a job and I can get burned out - especially if I’m having one of my “I am terrible at everything” moments. So, I turn to other forms of creative expression. I love getting my hands messy with chalk pastels. It’s not art if you aren’t a total mess by the time you’re done with it. I do crafts, too. It’s another way of clearing out the demons and sorting through my thoughts.
Plus, I’m legally blind and making things like that is something people wouldn’t think someone like me could do, but I do it. There’s something freeing in overcoming a perceived challenge.
M: Wow. That's deep on so many levels. And empowering. You live a very emotional and in touch life. Between the social media work, all the freelance writing, and living with a disability, how do you do it all? Do you have a routine or schedule that you follow?
R: I would say that I have a system. I have 2 digital planners, one on my phone and one on my Mac, then I have a paper planner that I made myself. When you have a chronic illness, you have to be plan things meticulously because it’s so easy to forget things. If you’ve got a migraine or are dealing with extreme neuropathy that day, you can’t rely on your brain to remember everything.
Because I’ve got all of these health things going on, I don’t make a set schedule, unless I have to for a client. I make lists of things I need to get done that day - everything is color coded, which helps me remember things - and then I work through them. I work on something from one column for an hour, and then I work on something from another column and so on. Shaking things up like that helps prevent burnout.
M: I couldn't live without my planner systems either. I'm amazed at your skill of balancing your needs with your creative expression and still getting enough done to write, promote, and socialize. What kind of boundaries do you set for yourself and your clients/work?
R: This is so hard. I’m really bad at this. When I’m passionate about something, I never stop. I don’t know how to give a little bit. At BarkPost, my managing editor was always telling me to unplug, but a story would come up and I’d know it was special, so I’d write about it, even if that meant writing at 8pm or starting work at 7am to cover a breaking story.
Right now, I’m consulting with an amazing woman who’s launching a new lifestyle brand. I believe so strongly in what she’s doing. We’re building her marketing from scratch. She’s so inspiring and she makes my brain click on so many levels. The past week, I’ve been getting those 2am jolts of inspiration. I wake up and write a whole bunch of notes - I hope she doesn’t read this! She’ll yell at me for not creating a boundary. It’s just another thing I’m sure I will learn from her.
M: I wouldn't be ashamed. I don't think any of us have it down perfect. Sounds like you're a work in progress just like the rest of us. Since you're not perfect (like the rest of us) have you ever experienced burnout or compassion fatigue?
R: Burnout happens all of the time when you are in a creative field. You sort of feel like you always have to be connected to the muse and also pumping out groundbreaking ideas. That’s not the reality of what people expect, but it’s an easy trap to fall into.
Compassion fatigue… I feel weird saying that I’ve dealt with it because what I experience isn’t on the same level as people who are in the trenches of dog rescue. Still, at BarkPost there would be days when all I would do is cry at my computer. Some of the stories I wrote about were so horrible. The thing about dogs is that they aren’t like humans, who have all of these agendas. Dogs don’t have agendas. How can a person hurt or neglect a living being who is pure goodness?
Emotion in my writing is crucial. I don’t write passively. That means I would get emotionally invested in every piece I wrote. I would put myself in the shoes of that dog or those rescuers. I internalize what I write. There were days I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know how my rescuer friends do it. They are so much stronger than I am.
M: I don't think Compassion Fatigue is exclusive to those in the trenches. You can have your empathy beaten up regardless of how you are exposed to trauma and pain. I think your experience is extremely valid and it is important for readers to know that if they connect with your experience and are struggling with CF even though they are more removed than others, they should still get help. One of the ways of counteracting the effects of CF is through positivity training aka resilience training. Do you practice gratitude, personal wins, or any other form of positivity?
R: Like I said, I struggle with depression and I live in a constant state of “Okay, what shitty thing is going to happen next.” That’s a defense mechanism. My vision has gotten worse, my health has gotten worse, I’ve lost two immediate family members in three years. I get afraid to celebrate the positive because if I hold onto it, it will only be ripped away.
So, I’ve learned to not hold onto the positive. I appreciate it for what it is - a moment of positivity. That’s not a negative thing. What it means is that I do my best to live life in the small moments. It’s not always easy, but there’s extreme value in understanding that happiness is transient and that life ebbs and flows.
And of course, dogs help. Dogs have tremendous healing power. Every night I tell Buttons how grateful I am for him, how he’s changed my life and how he keeps me grounded. I always want to honor that.
M: What you just explained sounds a lot like being present and that is a huge part of self care. Well done! I'm grateful for Buttons and all he does for you too. Speaking of Buttons, I have to bring up Service Dogs and the drama that can come from that part of the animal world.Have you ever been bullied? How do you handle people who don’t agree with you or bully you?
R: As a service dog handler and advocate, there is so much bullying and judgment that happens, even inside the service dog community. In fact, that’s where the biggest discrimination comes from.
People have a gut reaction when they see someone with a service dog. They immediately think you are faking your disability. Last month, I had someone comment on Buttons’ page that I belonged in jail because I was faking. She was clearly unhinged. When I gave her facts, she took her comments to private message and they were strewn with curse words.
I’ve also ended up on a Facebook page that “exposes” fake service dog handlers. When I found the picture of Buttons, I was so angry and heartbroken. Not only do I have to deal with discrimination from the general public, I have to deal with it from people who should know better. The person who posted the picture never asked me anything. They never tried to gather more information. When I contacted them, they said they couldn’t even remember why they posted it. There was nothing that indicated I was faking. They just decided I was and that became fact to them.
These people think they are protecting handlers by exposing the fakers, but because they immediately assume everyone is faking, all they do is add onto the trauma of discrimination. I’ve seen people like this harass handlers with Service Dogs from training programs. It’s not just handlers who train their own dogs. These people can be vicious and facts don’t matter to them. They know they are right and that’s the end of it. You could present you medical history to them and they still wouldn’t budge.
Of course, if you asked them for their medical history, they would cry discrimination.
It’s very difficult because even though I know that these people are unhappy, jaded, and ultimately miserable at heart, these encounters bring up years of bullying and the trauma that created. Lots of people with disabilities or a chronic illness have PTSD from bullying - not to mention the PTSD that can come from the treatment and testing process of having a disease or disability. It’s really hard to deal with people saying that you are faking your disability when you spent the previous night crying on your kitchen floor because you wish to god you could be “normal.”
When people accuse you of faking simply because you have the audacity to have a service dog, you feel like you can’t get any respect on a human level and that’s because they don’t see you as human. They see you as a body that they have the right to inspect and dissect. It’s as if having a service dog is like wearing a sign that says “OBJECTIFY ME.” But, I’m not an object. I’m a subject. Having a guide dog doesn’t mean that my medical history is fodder for gossip. When people see me walking around with my white cane instead of Buttons, they would consider it rude to go up and say “So is that a real white cane?” Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk up to me and say “Is he really a guide dog?” If I respond with “Yes, you fuckwit,” I’m considered the rude one. Again, it’s the idea that a service dog handler’s body is up for grabs.
I haven’t developed nerves of steel for this. I don’t know if I ever will. But I do have a great support system. I have really amazing friends, a lot of them in the dog rescue and dog training community, who support me. My parents support me so much. And I have a great friend who’s a fellow service dog handler. She runs the FB page Banner the Super Hero Service Dog. She’s my rock when a bully gets the better of me. There have been times where I’ve wanted to give up on my advocacy and talking about Buttons. She keeps me from shutting down my page. She goes through the same thing, so she knows what to say to bring me back from that “fuck this!” edge. She reminds me why speaking out is important. The good we do as service dog handler advocates far outweighs the negativity we might receive.
M: I find it almost ironic that the vision produced from someone who has trouble seeing, is more beautiful, compassionate, and caring than the vision from someone who can see "normally". And that "normal" vision seems to be colored with suspicion, judgement and cynicism. You and Buttons are beautiful and I hope that you continue to have the strength to carry on as a team where I know so many other have had to stop because the pressure for self advocacy is too hard. What challenges do you think the individuals like yourself will face in the next few years?
R: For service dog handlers, the challenge really is dealing with the publicity around fake service dogs. That damages all of us. Untrained dogs pose a real danger to trained Service Dogs. That untrained dog might be reactive or it might bark and distract a Service Dog. A distracted Service Dog could cost someone their life. And, the prevalence of those untrained dogs are what lead people to approach ever handler with judgment and spite.
But, vitriol isn’t how you deal with any problem. As a service dog handler advocate, I want to decrease discrimination, not add to it. It’s all about action through education. The more we talk about why people need service dogs, the more people will see that having one isn’t a game. It’s not fun, it’s a necessity. It’s dependence vs independence. Those of us who feel up to it should talk about our experiences and why our SDs matter to us. People need to understand. That’s not going to happen if we stay silent or if the only time we talk our words are laced with spite.
We also have to keep doing the work of getting people to understand that a person with a disability isn’t different from anyone else. It wasn’t that long ago that we were referred to as “invalids.” Think about that word. It means in-valid human. That stigma still exists, even if people don’t consciously view someone with a disability in that way.
I used to have a general “service dog” patch for Buttons because I knew I would get the “how can you have a guide dog if you can see?” question. Only about 15% of blind people are totally blind, but pop culture tells a different story and people only believe what they see on TV. I didn’t want to deal with the discrimination. I thought I was protecting myself from it. I wasn’t. People would just ask me “What kind of a service dog is he?” That question is dehumanizing. Again, I’m not an object. I am a human. You wouldn’t ask another human for their medical history. That’s exactly what you’re asking when you ask me what kind of service dog I have. People don’t realize that because somewhere in the back of their brain, they still believe someone with a disability is “invalid.”
You know, I don’t want to discuss my health issues while I’m at the store buying milk. That’s invasive. I’m fully human, just like everyone else, and it’s up to me when and how I talk about how I experience my humanity. Talking about it through writing is my safe space for that. In a way, I feel like carving out that space is a calling. If I don’t talk about my experience as a human and advocate for people with similar experiences, who will? Unless we get our stories out there, people will only ever see us as novelties. No, we shouldn’t have to fight to be seen as fully human, but that’s where society has left us. So, I’ll fight - and I’ll do it blind and in 5 inch stilettos. (I feel like I need to hashtag this with #ComeAtMeBro)
M: You are so strong Regina. You live your life with grace, compassion and strength. It is easy to be inspired by you. What advice would you give someone who has been inspired to follow in your footsteps?
R: I’m going to go with the question most people ask me, which is how to train their dog to be a service dog. It’s not easy. It’s hard work. It’s really like having a second full-time job in a lot of ways. There’s so much research that goes into it. It’s not just about the act of training your dog. You need to understand all of the laws. You need to research your disability and find out what tasks you might need help with. Then you need to research how to teach those tasks - and then sometimes you have to throw all of that out of the window because your dog doesn’t respond to any of those methods you so meticulously learned. Be ready to give a huge chunk of your time, physical energy, and emotional strength to training your dog.
And the most important thing is that you can’t force a dog to be a service dog. I never want to discourage anyone, because it can take 1-2 years to train a dog, but sometimes it’s just obvious that a dog isn’t going to work out. Maybe the dog can’t perform tasks adequately enough or maybe the dog can’t stay focused. You have to be honest with yourself about your dog’s capabilities. You could put both of you in danger if you aren’t.
M: Regina thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself with my readers today. You are a brilliant soul and I hope that your message is heard loud and clear. Your vision of the world is a beautiful one and I hope more of us can learn to see it. Stay strong sister!
If anyone reading this would like to reach Regina, you can find her at The Scarlet Scribe or on Buttons the Service Shiba's Facebook.
Finally if you're looking for a safe space to talk, find inspiration or support, visit our Facebook Group - The Humanity in Being Pet Professionals.