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We All Know It’s a Dog

by Erin Brewer 3 years ago in therapy
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How to Properly React to a Service Dog Sighting

Look. We’ve all done it. We see the adorable Labrador, Poodle, Pomeranian, etc. out in a place where there are not usually dogs. We gasp. We frantically point it out to our friends. It happens. The real issue is what many people do after they see that the dog has a vest.

I’m not going to use this article to discuss the ongoing issues of fake service dogs, or service dogs versus emotional support animals. For the purposes of this piece, and for everyone’s peace of mind out in the world, we are going to treat EVERY DOG we see in public, in a labeled vest, as either a Service Dog or a Service Dog In-Training. Handlers, generally, would consider it a perfect world if their dogs could be completely ignored by the general public. However, since many people find it very hard to ignore dogs, here are some easy things to remember when confronted with a surprise service dog encounter.

  1. If you feel the uncontrollable urge to alert the world to the fact that “There’s a doggie!” please restrain it. The handler and the dog are both aware that there is, in fact, a dog in the area. Shouting about the dog and pointing it out to your friends, significant other, and children is stressful and irritating to the handler, and distracting to the working dog.
  2. While you are staring at the awesome sight of a dog in your local supermarket, take a moment to read its vest. Many service dog handlers place patches on their dog’s vest and/or leash that describe the dog’s job, and remind people what not to do to the dog while it is working. Some handlers also place patches on their dog’s vest that request no interactions with themselves. Respect those wishes. Even if you desperately want to know what breed of dog it is, or how the handler trained it to be so smart, just leave them alone. That being said, those teams that only have “service dog” on their vest or leash are equally deserving of respect.
  3. Do not talk to the dog. Service dogs undergo extensive temperament testing before they even begin their training. They are friendly dogs. They enjoy it when they are spoken to in sweet voices. However, when they are vested and working, they need to have complete focus on their handler, or the task they have just been given. A distracted dog may miss a cue to retrieve a dropped object, or not notice the slight change before their handler has a medical emergency. Your desire to say, “Hi, sweet baby!” to the nice dog does not ever trump the handler’s need for their dog to perform their job.
  4. Do not touch the dog. This rule has the same explanation as the one about not talking to the dog. It is a major distraction. In the case of dogs in training, it can potentially undo an entire session’s worth of work in an instant. If you absolutely cannot resist, always make sure you ASK THE HANDLER if the dog may be touched, and respect the answer whether it is a yes or a no.
  5. Please, please, do not make the assumption, that a dog is not a real service dog if its handler is not either a veteran, or in a wheelchair. Service dogs perform a variety of tasks depending on their training. A handler may require mobility assistance, alerts for medical conditions ranging from seizures and heart conditions to diabetic blood sugar fluctuations, or assistance managing PTSD and anxiety attacks. Do not approach a vested dog, just because the handler is not visibly disabled. Remember: not all disabilities are visible.
  6. If you have a concern that a service dog in a public place is not an actual service dog due its behavior, alert the management of whatever store, museum, or movie theater in which you find yourself. It is not your job to ask service dog handlers to leave an area. Leave it to management.

Service dogs are an essential part of day to day life for many people, from children to veterans. Please try to admire their work quietly and from a respectful distance. Remembering and implementing the above rules will help make everyone’s day a little brighter when a service dog is present.


About the author

Erin Brewer

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