Service Dog Ettiquette
With all of the talk about dogs in inappropriate places lately, there have been a few people to bring up the topic of service dogs. And, while there are a lot of people that are pretty well educated on the subject, there is surprisingly a lot of people in this city that are not. So, as a service dog handler, I wanted to share some of the common issues that we face on a daily basis in the hopes that even a few people walk away with a little more understanding.
First of all, service dogs receive extensive training before they are considered as such. They need not just basic obedience, but also exposure to a wide variety things that most dogs will never really encounter in their lives, and they also need to learn tasks to help the handler function to the best of their ability every day. It’s not a simple matter of slapping a vest on your family dog and calling it a day. This can not only hinder legitimate service dog teams everywhere, but can cause an untrained dog unnecessary stress as well as get you in some pretty hot water. While a lot of people think it’s great to have a service dog that they get to take everywhere with them, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops. These dogs are our lifeline. Most people are able to live normal lives, but those of us with disabilities have to work exceptionally hard to even get close to that. When you wake up in the morning and get ready for work, you have to worry about you. For us, we have to get up extra early to make sure that our dogs are ready as well. We have to keep them clean and groomed. We have to make sure they are fed and toileted. We have to be prepared should we be out longer than planned that we can take care of their needs as well. When we fly, we have to be prepared to not only sacrifice some of our luggage space to fit everything we need for our dog, but also to give up any hope of having any leg room for ourselves so our dogs can fit neatly by our feet while not interfering with the room of fellow travelers. Most of us carry a stock of lint removers, wipes, bags, etc. just to make sure we are as inconspicuous as possible. And on top of everything else, we need to be prepared to be stared at, yelled at, questioned and stopped over and over again on even the simplest of outings. If I had a nickel for every time i was stopped an asked “what breed is that?” or “can i pet your dog?” I’d have been able to buy my own private island by now. Many of us that have legitimate service dogs have taken the time to make sure that they are plastered with patches that clearly state that they are working and are not to be pet, or are to be ignored, etc. We don’t do this to be a-holes, we do it because distracting a service dog by petting it, or whistling at it, or calling its’ name is the equivalent of jamming a stick in the wheels of someones wheelchair. Our dogs are considered to be medical equipment. No, we don’t force them to work all the time with no rest or reward. But when they are “on duty” they are to be ignored so they can focus on the task at hand. They are not perfect, even with all of the training they receive (and continue to receive throughout their lifetime) and some days are better than others for them. So, while at their best, they are able to ignore the kissy noises and people dying for them to acknowledge them, there are times when it can throw them off and can cause them to miss an important cue from their handler that literally could mean life or death.
I feel as though I’m rambling so I’m going to try to wrap things up with a few points about how you should behave around a service dog.
1. Don’t stare. I know if you are an animal lover, it’s hard not to, but it’s rude and distracting.
2. Don’t try to pet them. That includes petting them when you think the handler doesn’t see. In some cases a handler may welcome the petting, but you should always ask first and respect their answer.
3. Do talk to the handler and not the dog, but please remember that we are just trying to go about our business and can’t always stop to chat.
4. Please treat the handler with sensitivity and respect. Don’t ask personal questions about our disabilities. If we want to share, we will, but otherwise, it’s just not cool.
5. Please don’t let your own dog (or kids) get in the service dogs’ face or too close in general. This is an obvious distraction and happens way too often.
6.Please don’t offer a service dog food. While it’s a nice gesture, many service dogs are on specific diets and feeding schedules to help them stay healthy and focused.
7. Don’t assume service dogs never get to be “just dogs”. All service dogs get adequate downtime and are shown lots of love and affection.
8. If you work at, or own a business that has a service dog team visit, please treat them just like anyone else. If you feel they are not a legitimate team, you can ask for proof (every service dog team i know, myself included, will carry their id’s with them whenever out in public). The only time you can ask a legitimate service dog team to leave is if they are being a nuisance (ie. barking, relieving themselves, being aggressive, etc.) The only places that service dog teams are not permitted are sterile rooms (like an operating room) and kitchens. They are allowed in restaurants, stores, planes, buses, taxis, ubers (yes, even though you own your vehicle, when you sign up to be a driver, you are agreeing to the possibility of a service dog riding with you), events, etc., but you would never see a legitimate service dog sitting on a table at any of these venues.
For those of you that made it through this entire post, I hope it helped, and thank you!