4 things I wish people understood about service dogs
People love dogs; small dogs, big dogs, people can’t get enough of them. So, it is understandable that people have funny reactions to seeing a service dog in public.
From, “There’s a Dog!” to people actually screaming and pointing, going out with a service dog is always a lesson in keeping calm. Having a service dog comes with some unusual frustrations.
People whistle, clap and throw food in my dog's direction. Often parents let their children smack her, and she’s been kicked repeatedly. Once while we were out, a woman actually walked up to me and screamed that I was abusing my dog and she should be taken away. It was both frustrating and scary. My dog is loved. She is my best friend, and she does what she does for me because she loves me right back. The public seems to be a little confused as to how to react to seeing a service dog team.
1. Please don’t pet
Every day when we are out, someone asks to pet my dog. I get it, she’s adorable and I am very proud of her. But she is working. Just like a wheelchair or a cane, my dog is there to help me live my life easier. You wouldn’t ask to take a ride in someone’s wheelchair, so stopping someone’s day to ask if you can cuddle their service dog is a no-no. Service dogs are legally medical equipment under federal and state laws.
Distracting a service dog can put their human’s life at risk. Interfering with a service dog team is illegal.
2. Teach your children to stay back
Children love dogs and often forget their manners and run madly up to people with dogs — and sometimes end up getting hurt. Not all dogs are child friendly.
Service dogs are trained to ignore people. They are to maintain contact with their handler, remain focused and stay calm. Allowing your child talk to a stranger who is trying to get through their day with their disability and stand in their way, distracts the dog,
Teach your children that service dogs are working dogs, like police dogs, that are doing a special job and shouldn’t be disturbed.
Often, I see a child honestly curious about my dog and why she might be at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. When I have time, I don’t mind explaining why I have my dog with me, but they are never allowed to touch, and I tell them why. Taking the time when I have it to try to educate children is a pleasure for me, but I don’t always have that luxury and I depend on parents to help me with this.
3. Respect my privacy
While we are out, we get people asking us the strangest questions. "Is she in training? You don't look sick” or "Are you blind, can she see for you?" And my personal favorite "I got bitten by a tick once, can your dog smell me and tell me if I have Lyme disease, too?"
Don’t ask about my illness or try to guess what it could be. People with service dogs are people too, and their medical issues are private. Talking about someone’s illness or disability isn’t nice.
Most of the time, we can still hear you talking about us. Looking and pointing at someone with a service dog is just as rude as pointing and calling out someone in a wheelchair. Taking our picture without my permission is just weird.
4. They are all highly trained to assist their handler
My dog was trained to be my service dog for Lyme disease. She is an unusual breed for a service dog and gets a lot of attention when we are out in public. She’s small, only 35 pounds, but she’s not needed for heavy work. Instead, she is trained to overcome her size and to be useful in other ways. Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes.
The difference between a service dog and a fake service dog is in the training. Sure, there are some really great dogs, obedient dogs, but unless they are trained specifically to work directly with the disabled person to help mitigate their disability, they are not service dogs.
Most service dog teams go by the "4 on the floor" rule, meaning they aren’t riding in strollers or carts. Many of us find wearing a vest or identification is much easier than explaining over and over why we have a dog out with us, but it isn’t required. Just do your best not to judge.
So, if you see a service dog team out and about, give them some space, treat them kindly and please don’t pet the dog. Thanks!