Recently, while enjoying a leisurely Sunday brunch at my favorite coffee shop, I was perusing the community affairs calendar in the local paper and noticed that a free class on civil discourse was being offered to the public. Given the contentious, litigious nature that our country seems to be sliding into, it somewhat surprised me that we must now teach our citizens how to have a decent, respectful conversation, even if the parties are not in agreement with each other’s point of view. This is not the same as “political correctness” where one changes their ideology to align with a perceived “popular, correct stance,” but a course in conducting an open conversation.

In some ways it was not surprising. I know that universities and colleges are starting to incorporate mandatory workshops and classes that teach freshmen “mindfulness.” What, you missed that class as part of your freshman experience? What the heck is mindfulness and why does it need to be in the syllabus? A generalization of the term is to be present in the now, and focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the new normal – operating on several brain cylinders at once. You know, reading the paper while checking your cell phone messages, while talking with your bestie and thinking about dinner plans all at the same time. Studies indicate that this is counter-productive to accomplishing your goals, whether they are great or small.

But I digress. Back to my breakfast. As luck would have it I was able to put theory into practice when a patron walked into the café and ordered some food. Not unusual, but the large dog on her side was. Unusual for a restaurant that is. Unusual for the inside of a restaurant. Unusual for the inside of a restaurant in Clinton, Arkansas.

The patron quietly volunteered to the proprietor that this was a service dog, and had all of the rights of access that the American with Disabilities Act provided. With no objection from the restaurateur, the order was placed and I was immediately drawn into the conversation. For you see, my doctoral dissertation, a published study authenticated by a panel of academic experts, was on the topic of Animal Assisted Therapy. As part of this 5 year research endeavor I investigated the various disciplines within the world of the animal-human bond, and the terminology that defines and describes each of them.

The prevalence of service dogs, therapy dogs, and comfort/companion dogs in public has increased at a tremendous rate in the past few years. People are including their animals in areas of their everyday lives that were not even thought about in the past. Ok, maybe thought about, but not acted upon. And in natural reaction others tend to question the legitimacy of animals in once restricted places. Food and health standards prevented animals in places of food preparation and food consumption, transportation safety official regulated the presence of animals in the cabin of commercial airplanes, and if hotels allowed them as overnight quests, then the owners paid a handsome fee. Mary might have had a little lamb but it was not allowed inside the schoolhouse.

My academic curiosity and my attempt at opening up a conversation with the handler of this handsome assistant was met with guarded skepticism, and an almost blanket defense response. A reply from her was that this is my service dog and I am not required to show evidence of cause, by way of working vest or registration card.

So, here was my opportunity to practice civil discourse, even if we were not in disagreement, even if she wasn’t yet aware that I was not opposing her.

A brief explanation from me of my background and the nature of my interest gave way to an invitation from me to join me at my table and led to a conversation about many topics and common areas of shared interests, an exchange of contact information, and a potential reunification at as future presenter at a group gathering.

All in the spirit of information exchange and enlightenment. All of this possible because of a willingness to participate in open conversation. I think this is what is meant by civil discourse.