Service Dogs (SD) are medical equipment. Living, breathing, sentient beings but designated medical equipment none the less.
As such it is very important that people know how to deal with service dogs that they may come across as they go about their daily life.
The first rule is simple – please ignore the dog. Address the handler, talk to the handler, ignore the dog.
If somebody was in a wheelchair you wouldn’t speak to the wheelchair rather than the person in the chair? So don’t do that with a service dog either.
If a SD is in public with its handler; it is working!
It may not look like it to you. You may even think that it’s sleeping (and sometimes that may be true) but do you stop being a parent when you’re asleep? No, the instant your child needs something you’re alert and dealing with their need. Service dogs are just the same.
You might think that the handler and dog are just cuddling if you see the handler either on the floor or sat down with the dog apparently on their knee and/or licking at them.
In fact, the dog is working. Many handlers struggle with sensory overload. Service dogs can be trained to provide Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) where they deliberately place their weight into pressure points in the body. This works much in the same way that a weighted blanket does and bring relief.
Alternatively, some handlers tend to disassociate and need help staying in the present. Service Dogs are then trained to interrupt the disassociation by insisting on attention from their handler; the handler can then use the dog to help themselves. A common exercise is to use all your senses… what can you smell, feel, touch, taste, see and hear. Again it’s easier for the handler to do this with the dog in close proximity – often across their lap.
I personally have a lot of problem with pain. My SD is trained to lean into, or lie on, the pain points for me. His weight and warmth will often alleviate my pain to the point that I can keep moving and not stiffen up to to the point that I move like I’m 120 years old.
For handlers with seizure disorders SDs are often trained to lie up against the handler to keep them on their side, and to help stop them hurting themselves during any uncontrolled movement. Likewise, as for handlers with balance related issues, the dog will often lay on the handler until it is safe for them to get up without increased risk of falling.
So if you see something that looks a little different to that which you expect to see, just move along. Service Dogs are trained for a wide variety of disabilities. Just as an example, here are a few of the main types of service dogs.
- Guide dogs (for the blind)
- Hearing/Sound alert (for the deaf)
- Diabetic Alert
- Severe Allergy Alert
- Wheelchair Assistance
- Psychiatric Service
- Brace/Mobility Support
- Medical Alert
- Seizure Assistance
Remember that many of these disabilities are invisible and that many handlers struggle with more than one disability. So you can’t tell by looking at the dog, or its equipment, which kind of disability the dog is trained to assist with.
You also don’t need to know – so please don’t ask!
Some handlers love to put lots of patches on their dog’s working gear. These patches will inform you that the dog is trained to help with PTSD, or EDS, or other conditions that it’s important that First Responders know in the event of an emergency.
Others don’t. There is no requirement to label the dog by the disability its trained to mitigate, In face, it would be a human rights violation if it were to be a requirement.
Now, I personally do have the words ‘Deaf handler’ on Kai’s vest. I choose to do that because I think that it is important for the general public to know that I’m not ignoring them, that I can’t hear them. I often wear a T-Shirt that says this too, especially when I’m flying.
However, I don’t announce on his vest any of my other disabilities that he is also cross-trained to help with.
That information is included in the Medical ID on my iPhone which is available to first responders even if my phone is locked.
The second rule is really an extension of the first. Please don’t distract the dog. Service dogs are trained to pay attention to their handler and / or their surroundings and to intelligently act in response to these as they have been trained to do. It’s work that they love and that they have been trained for, for many many hours.
Yet, just like us, if given the option of working, or doing something fun, it can be a hard choice some days. As handlers we work hard at training our dogs to ignore you trying to pet it, reaching out to it, calling to it, trying to command it, teasing it, barking at it, feeding it following us around the store and trying to jump out and startle it….
We do our part by training for this but it would be so much more pleasant for all concerned if you would just not try and distract the dog. Remember, if the dog is in public with the handler then it’s working.
There was an unfortunate incident not long ago where a handler spent several minutes having to educate somebody not to pet her dog. As a result, her dog was distracted and missed a seizure alert. The handler seized and fell from her wheelchair sustaining serious trauma to her head. If her dog had not been distracted, her service dog would have alerted her in time for the handler to either fasten her seat-belts or better yet, to be able to get down on the floor in a safe place in advance of the seizure.
Distracting a service dog puts their handler’s life at risk. No joke!
Now, as handlers, we know how cute our dogs are and how appealing it is to see such well-behaved dogs out in public. However, you petting the dog is still a distraction. Please don’t.
Having said that, some handlers don’t mind you petting their dog – especially when they’re at different points in their training, as long as you ask permission first. Others do mind, always. Please don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about the team doing what’s best and safe for them.
I do not allow Kai to be petted when on duty except when we’re in the ER. I allow it there, with permission, because the ER is a crazy place and a very hard one for a trained hearing dog to settle in. There are a lot of emergency sounding alarms that he has to filter through and work out the one or two that he needs to alert me to. Consequently, if any of the ER staff want a little pet therapy, and ask appropriately, then I will give permission. For Kai this has been trained to be location specific. If we meet that same ER nurse in the street he knows that he will not be petted.
Some handlers do actually have patches on their dog’s vest which say “please ask to pet”. Often this is because, for these handlers, the interaction with you though the conversation and your then petting their dog actually helps them with some of their disabling conditions such as severe social anxiety.
The third rule is more general again. Please just ignore the service dog. (Have you spotted that the first rule and the third are the same? It bears repeating).
If you’re seating somebody in a restaurant, and they’re accompanied by a SD, then by all means ask them where they’d like to be seated. Those of us with big dogs know the best way of tucking our dogs out of sight. Other than that, though, they should be ignored.
If you want to understand more about this from the perspective of the SD handler have a look at 10 Things Service Dog Handlers Want You to Know
Likewise, if you’re interested in the standards of acceptable behaviour, that the vast majority of SD handlers will adhere too, have a look at Things Service Dogs in Public Should and Should Not Do
While these articles are US centric they make a lot of good points.
However, to be clear: remember what I said above about the fact that it may not look like a SD is working when it is. So please don’t make assumptions based on what the dog is doing.
There are only two reasons that a service dog can be asked to leave:
- The animal is out of control and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it; or
- The animal is not housebroken.
So if you are out and about and you see a dog in public, in non-pet friendly places, and it is out of control and the handler isn’t addressing it immediately then please do report the situation to management.
Out of control means barking, lunging, growling, whining, sniffing (unless being asked to sniff for an allergy alert), begging for food or attention, and being anywhere but right next to the handler unless they are retrieving something or somebody for the handler.
Poorly trained dogs or people faking disabilities to take their pet dogs anywhere they go are huge risks for legitimate SD teams. One of my earlier posts explains this in more detail: When did it become OK to pretend to be disabled?
Finally, please respect the handler’s right to privacy. I don’t come up to you and ask you about your favourite sexual positions. So why do you feel that you have the right to know just as intimate information about me, just because I have a Service Dog to mitigate my disabilities?
Trust in the fact, that in Ontario, my health care professional has stated that I am disabled and that I need a SD to mitigate my disabilities. That’s all that you need to know.
If you are genuinely interested, because you may know somebody, including yourself, who might benefit from a SD and would like to know more; simply be respectful and ask if the handler would have the time to discuss their experiences with you, and if not then, at a different time.
But please keep in mind that you may be the 10th person to ask the handler that day and that this can be very frustrating for a handler. It literally took me 90 minutes to buy milk one day because every few yards somebody was asking me questions or trying to distract my dog. Imagine how frustrating that would be. Most of us handlers are well aware that service dogs are a pretty rare sight and know that when we use one, that part of our role in life will now be to educate. But some days…I just want to buy milk!
So to summarise:
- Please talk to the handler, not to the dog.
- Please don’t distract the dog
- Please ignore the dog
- Please don’t ask the handler intrusive, personal questions about their disabilities
One final comment. There seems to be some confusion, even in the press, about the different kinds of working dogs that there are.
In Canada it’s pretty simple. We have Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs only.
Disabled handlers have the right to accompanied by their Service Dog anywhere that they can go in street clothes, as long as they can either meet the dog’s needs themselves, or arrange for help if they can’t.
Therapy Dogs can only go where they are specifically invited to provide comfort and therapy. Examples of these are care homes and hospitals. We are also increasingly seeing places such as courthouses and airports using therapy dogs to provide comfort, where they are often known as Facility dogs. They do not have the right to accompany their owner in the grocery store simply because they were on their way, to or from, a therapy session.
Canadian legislation does not support the term Emotional Support Dog (Emotional Support Animal, in the US) though unfortunately, it seems that there is a lot of confusion about this, even within the medical professions.
If a handler needs support, outside of the home, for emotional support then their SD would need to be trained as a psychiatric service dog. That it, that the dog doesn’t just provide comfort by simply being present like a Therapy Dog, but that it has been trained specifically to complete tasks to help the handler. The expectation on behaviour and training between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog is like night and day.
Occasionally you may see another kind of working dog out and about. Police dogs are the most common, but there are dogs trained in search and rescue, and dogs trained to find illegal drugs and other substances, or cadavers, as other examples. These dogs do not have public access rights unless they are actively working with their handler, at that time.
These dogs are rarely trained for being around the public, beyond the immediate need of the task at hand. Therefore, it’s incredibly important that you don’t interact with one of these dogs; unless asked to do so by their handler. This is for your own safety. A quick Google (TM) search will soon find you videos, and stories, of people being bitten because they interfered with one of these kinds of working dogs.
It’s pretty simple – just ignore any working dog!
If you see a Service Dog team out and about, please be kind and considerate. Remember that you will not be the first person to ask me about my disabilities, or that I’ve had to educate that day on why you shouldn’t pet my Service Dog.
Sometimes I will have somebody with me who will take the time to answer your questions. Please don’t feel offended that I don’t stay to join in the discussion. Sometimes it’s OK with me and my friend knows what I’m comfortable sharing. Sometimes this is a big problem for me as even my friends and family, feel that they have the right to tell complete strangers about my disabilities because I use a Service Dog. They don’t, and it hurts me, that they continue to do so even when I’ve asked them not to. But rather than have that argument with them again, with you right there, I will leave and have it again later!
Please don’t tell me how lucky I am to be able to take my Service Dog everywhere, and that you wish that you could do the same thing.
Really? Do you really want to be so disabled that the only way that you can have anywhere near a ‘normal’ life is to be accompanied everywhere that you go, 24/7 by a dog?
Believe me, when you make the decision to use a Service Dog it shouldn’t be made lightly.
Your life will never be the same again.
For many of us, it means that we still get to have some form of a life.
But it’s not an easy choice.
Finally, by all means, praise our dogs to us. Tell us what fabulous jobs they are doing, that you hadn’t even realized that they were there. As owner trainers, it’s a great compliment to our hard work and ongoing commitment to ourselves as a team.
But please don’t forget to address your comments to us, the handlers – not our dog!