In most of these blog posts, I give tips and talk about concepts. Today’s post is a little bit different: it’s a public service announcement about service dogs, from someone who frequently takes service dogs into public with clients.
The message I want to convey boils down to this: leave dogs alone when you’re in public! When you see a dog, especially a service dog, just leave it alone. I know that’s tough for a lot of people. I probably don’t understand this urge to interact with dogs, because I’m surrounded by dozens of them every day and usually fulfill my “dog quota” with no problem. But there is nothing more frustrating to a service dog’s trainer or handler than to be out in public teaching the dog and be constantly interrupted by folks who just want to chat.
In most cases, there’s no malice involved. It’s just people who are generally interested, kind, and polite. However, you need to consider this situation from the handler’s point of view. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who gets questioned about their dog every day. If that happens every time you’re trying to go about your business—when you’re shopping, grabbing a bite at a restaurant, getting onto an airplane—it takes an emotional toll on you is unreal. You constantly have to stop what you’re doing and deal with those questions.
This is especially difficult considering that the dog is there to help with your disability. Imagine that you were in a wheelchair, and people constantly walked up to you and asked “Why are you in a wheelchair?” The overwhelming majority of people would never think to say something like that, yet it happens to service dog owners all the time. The question people are really asking is “Hey, why do you have that service dog? What’s it for?” Think about fielding that question all the time, and how embarrassing and uncomfortable that must be.
Now, imagine people wanting to take a photo of your wheelchair. Imagine people wanting to touch it. Any time that I’m in public with a service dog, even though we have vests that say “Do Not Touch,” people come up and ask if they can pet it. I always say no, and then they smugly say “That’s why I asked, just wanted to make sure.” In the meantime, however, they’ve distracted both the handler and the dog.
The dog is there to do a job, not to satisfy or entertain you. It’s not there to look cute. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with you. There is no need to touch it or talk to it. And there is definitely no need to tell your children that the service dog’s owner has a disability, within earshot of that person (believe it or not, this is something that happens all the time). Even mentioning how cute the dog is calls attention to it.
Almost every service dog owner that I know responds to these questions in a kind and polite way. But replying to them constantly takes a huge toll. Coming into a person’s world to talk to them about their disability is inappropriate. Your day will go on well even if you ignore the dog, go about your business, and treat the handler the same way you would treat anyone else.
This post is not meant to be sour, but simply to advocate for the people who I work with. Sadly, even well-meaning people can really screw with these handlers’ days and make their lives much harder than they need to be.