Anyone who has ever handled a service dog in public knows that getting barraged with questions and unsolicited feedback from others is inevitable. Sometimes these inquiries and comments are less than considerate. While there is a disappointing minority of society who will consciously make hurtful remarks or ask inappropriate question, the vast majority of those who offend do so without mal intent.
Political correctness isn’t the name of the game. Service dog handlers can handle an awkwardly phrased question or comment. We won’t broadcast your gaffe across all mainstream media outlets- just in our blogs and online forums [kidding!]. It’s pretty easy to differentiate between someone whose goal is to hurt feelings and someone who is genuinely interested in what you have to say. When you talk to a service dog handler, you don’t have to step on eggshells. All that most service dog handlers ask is that others take their feelings into consideration, as they would to any other person.
Everyone Has a First Time
Service dogs are becoming exponentially more common.
“Studies released in 1990 and 1992 indicated that the percentage of people with disabilities who wanted a dog trained for them had risen 13-fold.” (History & Future http://www.pawswithacause.org/history.asp )
If you have yet to encounter a service dog team, it’s more likely than not that you will in the future. No one expects you to inherently know the do’s and don’t’s of service dog etiquette. A willingness to learn is a great start though!
There are several points of etiquette and courtesy that should be observed in regard to a service dog team. These are in the interest of the handler’s safety, as well as in consideration for the handler’s feelings.
The Initial Encounter
Upon entering a place of business with Bradley, I’m always extremely appreciative of employees who kindly ask if I need any help and then move on once I politely decline their offers. Greeting a service dog handler in such a manner is an excellent way to make her feel welcome and like slightly less of a spectacle. I’d love to see more business owners encourage this practice among employees.
It’s common and understandable for many people to be startled initially upon seeing a service dog in a public place where one wouldn’t expect to see a dog. I’ve witnessed a whole range of reactions to Bradley’s presence. Most of the time I can observe facial expressions change before my eyes. Sometimes as soon as others see Bradley, their eyes light up and the corners of their mouths turn up into a grin. Other times there are people whose faces are taken hostage by scathing looks of disgust, as if they just smelled something in the process of rotting.
If you dislike or are afraid of dogs, there’s no reason to flee. Just as service dog handlers appreciate consideration for their feelings and needs, we try to be equally as considerate of others. We go to great lengths to train and handle our dogs in a manner that will not be obtrusive to others. Our dogs are well groomed and healthy when we take them with us to public places.
If you’re a dog lover, no one understands how difficult it is to ignore one as well as I! Even as a handler myself, when I encounter another service dog in public, I turn to mush. Resisting the temptation to gush over the dog is crucial. Service dogs are not there to be social and in some cases, neither is the person.
Some service dogs may wear vests with patches that say, “Ask to pet me, I’m friendly.” In the absence of such a patch, and especially in the presence of one that says, “don’t pet me, I’m working”, assume that touching the dog is out of the question.
Interacting with a Service Dog Handler
Handling a service dog guarantees that all eyes will be on you. However, such amounts of attention are not what most handlers want and, at times, it gets overwhelming. It is equally important not to give a service dog team excessive, unwarranted attention as it is not to isolate them.
Engage a service dog handler in conversation as you would someone without a four-legged, tail wagging assistant by her side. Speak directly to the person. Even if you’re talking about the dog, don’t make eye contact with the dog, make kissing, cooing or other types of sounds to the dog, and as advised earlier, don’t touch the dog.
Think Before You Speak
There are several very common questions and comments that service dog handlers are presented with on a regular basis. While the majority of those who broach these subjects don’t mean to offend, it’s insensitive to expect a handler to feel comfortable elaborating on them.
Many people are understandably intrigued by the feat of a dog assisting someone with a disability. However, the presence of the service dog tends to be misinterpreted as the handler’s willingness to openly discuss her disability. Most handlers get asked questions like, “What does the dog do for you?” and “What’s your disability?”. An incredibly common remark is, “You don’t look disabled.”
While those comments may not be uttered with mal intent, most handlers feel that they’re out of line. As a general rule, don’t mention the handler’s disability unless she brings it up first. Even so, don’t assume that she’ll be willing to talk openly about such a personal subject.
Earlier today, I was out shopping and a woman asked me what I was training Bradley for, in a condescending tone I might add. While that question may seem innocent enough, answering it gives the same information as if she had asked, “What is your disability?” While this particular woman may have thought I was training him for a program or someone else, there are still plenty of people ask the same question after learning that I’m training him for myself.
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
A common mistake many people make is that a handler is training the dog, even when the dog is a working, trained service dog. Sometime this is because many people have the misconception that guide dogs are the only kind of service dog. Therefore, they assume that a dog who is not obviously guiding the handler or is not wearing typical guide dog gear, must still be in the training phase of his career. In fact, there are other types of service dogs whose jobs aren’t as outwardly obvious and may not be equipped with harnesses like a guide dog.
Another possible reason for the “service dog in training” misconception is a handler who doesn’t appear to be disabled. Others make the assumption that if the handler isn’t disabled, she must be training the dog for someone else. There are a variety of types of service dogs, a wider variety of disabilities and an even wider variety of training and handling methods. Unless the dog is wearing a vest that says, “in training”, don’t assume the dog is a trainee.
No Autographs, Please.
Most service dog handlers are happy to answer a few, short questions from curious bystanders, under the right circumstances. However, there is a time and a place for everything. Approaching a service dog handler to inquire about the dog’s job isn’t always appropriate. Service dog handlers are just as subject to schedules, the demands of their families, social obligations and other everyday stresses as anyone else. As patient as we try to be, we are not there to provide a social service or entertainment.
Quite frequently, parents will approach me with their young children, encouraging the children to pet Bradley. While I appreciate the significance of introducing children to dogs early in life, these are not the appropriate circumstances under which to do so. Unfortunately, parents respond the most defensively of anyone who gets told that the dog is working and cannot be pet. I’ve gotten some nasty comments from parents when I politely ask them not to allow their child to pet Bradley. Please understand that service dogs have a job to do and handlers cannot make exceptions for children.
Another common request is for the dog to demonstrate his skills. Sometimes handlers are asked to do this to validate their right to have the dogs accompany them but more often it is for the entertainment or curiosity of others. (It is not legal for a handler to demonstrate the dog’s skills to gain access to a business.) Not only is this intrusive, but it is also unrealistic. A large percentage of service dogs perform tasks under very specific circumstances, like alerting to a seizure or low pressure or responding to psychiatric condition like a dissociative state. These scenarios cannot be replicated for the sake of demonstration or amusement.
Respect the Handler’s Limitations
Each person who uses a service dog is disabled in some way. Guide dogs are far from the only type of service dog. Handlers may be affected by a wide range of disabilities, including but not limited to, blindness, deafness, seizure disorders, psychiatric disorders or mobility problems. Please be considerate of the handler’s potential limitations and respect them accordingly. If the handler appears to be having a problem of some kind, ask her if she needs help.
Put Yourself in the Handler’s Shoes
Since there are more people who have no experience encountering a service dog team than those who have, handlers are playing the role of most people’s “first” on a daily basis. Almost everywhere we go, there will be at least one person who has never seen a working service dog before.
Some handlers relish the opportunity to educate every curious individual who approaches them about the joys of using a service dog. However, even the most extroverted, well spoken advocates for educating the non-service dog-using general public have their days. Just like anyone else. If you approach a service dog handler during her grocery shopping, in line at the bank or walking through the park on a sunny day, please don’t be offended if she doesn’t engage you in a lengthy conversation.
Service dog handlers are acutely conscious of the role they assume simply by going out into public with their dogs. They must act as ambassadors for service dog teams in general. Handlers realize that if either their demeanor or their dogs’ behavior is less than ideal, they risk leaving others with a bad first impression of service dogs.
Most service dog handlers feel obligated to positively represent an entire demographic of people, most of whom they’ll never know, every time they leave their houses. Some people can relate to this sense of responsibility. Speaking for myself, however, I never grasped that concept as deeply as I do now, until I started training Bradley as my service dog.
Everyone has an off day here and there. Humans and dogs. If you approach a service dog handler who isn’t receptive to your enthusiasm, your first reaction may be for it to leave a sour taste in your mouth. However, the chances are, that service dog handler probably thought about it later, and wishes she had made a better impression.
Just as service dog handlers must take others’ poor choices of words with a grain of salt, it’s important for others to be aware that some responses a handler may give are not as offensive as they may seem.
The most prevalent misinterpretation is a service dog handler’s refusal of a stranger’s request to pet the dog. A high percentage of people, whose requests are politely declined, take it personally. Perhaps they think that the handler has singled them out and has deemed them unfit to interact with the dog. The reality is that most handlers restrict everyone from touching or interacting with the dog. This is done with reason and without bias.
Service dogs understand the difference between “working” mode and “pet dog” mode. Most service dog handlers prefer to have their dog completely ignore other people. This is because the dog needs to focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be. Attention from strangers distracts the dog and can put the handler in grave danger!
Drawing the Line
It should go without saying that taunting a service dog or harassing the team is morally wrong. However, that’s not enough to deter some people from doing so, as does happen. Fortunately, there are laws to protect handlers from this treatment. It is a crime to interfere with a service dog team and many handlers won’t hesitate to press charges if an individual’s behavior so warrants it.
Touching a service dog after being asked not to, threatening harm against the dog, feeding the dog without permission and otherwise intentionally distracting the dog interfere with the dog’s job and put the handler in danger.
Another example of abhorrent behavior is a parent encouraging a child to pet a service dog, despite being told not to. I’ve heard several accounts of handlers overhearing the parents make comments to the children like, “she’s blind so she won’t know if you pet the dog.” Pathetic.
The Golden Rule
Treat others how you would want to be treated. This applies to service dog handlers as well. Understanding the role a service dog plays in the life of his handler and respecting that relationship is the best thing you can do for a service dog handler. Remember that a service dog handler is human too and deserves just as much consideration as anyone else.