Despite being utilized with increasing frequency to combat a wide range of disabilities, service dogs remain an unusual sight in public. When interacting with a service dog team, it is best to keep some general guidelines in mind so as to ensure that the experience is positive for everyone.
First and foremost, be respectful. When you see a service dog team, refrain from staring and pointing. It can be difficult, but try to ignore the dog entirely and interact with the handler as though they were alone.
While this might seem harsh, it is in fact greatly appreciated, because it allows the handler to have a conversation with you and permits the dog to perform his tasks without any distraction. If the pair requires any assistance, such as with opening doors or ascending stairs, the handler will ask for your aid.
Never take a service dog’s leash from his or her handler; the pair works as a team and has spent many hours adjusting to one another and learning their respective tasks together.
Interfering without asking will only cause confusion, as I discovered one day when a thoughtful man tried to assist me onto a bus. My service dog Rally and I have our own routine for boarding buses that we have practiced countless times.
I was halfway up the stairs, leading Rally, when suddenly I felt the leash raise sharply. Surprised, wondering if Rally had learned levitation in his spare time, I turned to find that my service dog had been awkwardly hoisted into the arms of a complete stranger, who was grinning ear to ear in triumph. “He looked tired,” he explained, breathless from the strain of lifting my 80-pound dog. “Where should I put him?” “Down,” I managed to respond, and he obliged, setting Rally on one of the rows of seats beside me.
The bus lurched into traffic, and Rally’s claws scrabbled on the hard plastic chair as he attempted to jump down to his usual spot at my feet. Clearly unwilling to believe that I had the situation under control, the man shoved Rally back, sternly admonishing him to remain still.
Rally was now sitting on his rump in one of the passenger seats, hind legs sliding out from beneath him, confused and bewildered at his new position. By that time I had relocated my voice and commanded Rally to descend his throne, which he did gratefully. Another helpful tip to abide by when meeting a service dog is to never touch the animal without permission.
Handlers invest thousands of dollars and hours of time into ensuring their dogs are properly behaved and focused on their tasks; petting a service dog without permission distracts the dog from monitoring his handler’s concerns, such as blood pressure, guiding his handler down steps or alerting to a heart condition.
I can attest that it is annoying and disruptive when I am working with Rally or relaxing after a hard day and someone walks straight over and begins to pet him. It can be difficult for the general public to understand, but service dogs aren’t pets; they are medical devices, like a pair of glasses or a wheelchair.
Their sole job in life is to keep their handler safe, and when their concentration is jarred it can become detrimental to the team. If I am asked respectfully, then I will usually permit you to pet Rally, but if we are training or busy don’t be offended if I deny your request. After all, my health and safety depends on my service dog.
When you see a service dog team, you might have a lot of questions, but it is important to remember to be polite and respectful. Handlers receive dozens of repetitive questions throughout their day, all aimed at discovering what their disability is and why they have a service dog.
Most handlers don’t mind impersonal questions, such as what breed their dog is and how many years they have been in training together, but some questions are none of the public’s business. “So, what’s wrong with you?”said the woman nonchalantly as she swallowed a bite of her hamburger, scanning me from head to foot in search for an obvious disability.
“Why do you need a service dog? You don’t look handicapped.” “Honey, you can’t ask her that! It’s rude! She might be deaf or blind — or worse!” Her husband mopped his brow with a napkin and turned to me, waving a hand and foot in front of my face, asking loudly, “You’re not blind are you?” “Of course she’s not!” His wife huffed, leaning over the edge of their table to stare avidly at Rally. “Where did you get your dog’s vest? I want to get one for our little Lacey. She’s the sweetest tiny thing, but being alone all day makes her just stir crazy!
I want to take her with me to work —” “Yeah, what makes your dog able to come into establishments like this one?” Waving his fork in the air, the man gestured in indignation. “What’s the secret?” “— I wish Lacey was as well behaved as your dog,” sighed the woman wistfully. “She’s perfect, only she pees on carpet and chases birds and barks at loud noises — oh, and she doesn’t like it when people walk over or around her —” “Hey, what did you say was wrong with you?” her husband studied me suspiciously.
“You look normal. Why do you even have a service dog anyways?” I sipped my soda slowly, giving my annoyance and hurt feelings time to subside before I attempted to form any sort of answer.
When subjected to such prying and personal inquiries, I usually refrain from giving any sort of answer. After all, my medical history is my own, as are my reasons for obtaining a service dog. Only when I am faced with respectful, courteous questions will I take time from my day to educate individuals about some of the work that service animals perform, and those are the folks who brighten my day and put a smile on my face.
So, if you encounter a service dog team, smile! Come and say “hi” if the pair aren’t working, and be polite and respectful when asking questions. Remember not to pet the dog without permission, and to treat the handler as though the dog were invisible. If your request to touch the handler’s dog is granted, then take a moment to briefly pat the service dog’s head and praise him for a job well done. You’ll brighten both of our days!
Kendall Winship studies English and Spanish. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.