Okay, folks, I’ve been meaning to write this post for almost a month now, and something pissed me off enough today that I’m finally writing it.
Service dog etiquette. I’ll be up-front and tell you that this is more about the ‘why’ than the ‘what’, because the ‘what’ is that damn simple. Seriously. Anyhow, on with the show.
The best of folks who aren’t service dog handlers often make slip-ups, not knowing that it endangers service dog users. Worse are those who don’t care, and I ran into one of those today! For the sake of simplicity, I am not writing about emotional support dogs. I just haven’t thought through how misbehaving around a person with an emotional support dog might affect them, but I would love to know more details.
The thing about a service dog is that in a way, the dog is about equivalent to a small child. They can be unbelievably clever, and can learn an incredible amount of service tasks. Particularly so with my Hudson, whose puppy raiser described him as an ‘electronic device with so many features, you didn’t even know what it could do’. However, for all that cleverness, they don’t have the reasoning ability of an adult human. They get distracted. This is true of even the best of them. Believe it or not, a sneak-pet or a sneak-feed can start unravelling the bond between service dog and handler.
I’m sure you’re thinking, how does my petting a service dog undermine his relationship with his person?
Well, it works in two ways. First off, my service dog works for me because he believes I am the most awesome person in the world and that all good things come from me. All petting, all praise, all toys, all games, his soft fluffy bed, all food, all treats – that all comes from me. Secondly, if someone other than me pets him, he starts thinking…oh, people will pet me. If people will pet me, it’s worth paying attention to people rather than my partner. If he pays attention to people rather than to me, I could have a nasty fall (among other things) – one that could injure both of us. Keep in mind when you read this that the average person who works with a service dog is more likely to be hurt, and hurt badly, by a fall. We tend to have service dogs because there is some kind of physical fragility or injury to us already, after all. When you’re dealing with guide dogs, I think the risk is even greater – a distracted guide dog might walk his person into traffic!
Here’s the part that people really struggle with, though – that applies to ALL forms of distracting him. Don’t talk to him. Don’t call his name. Don’t coo at him. Try not to stare at him. Don’t feed him. For heaven’s sake, don’t let your dog distract him, either! And dog distracting covers a lot – don’t let them sniff my dog, try to play with my dog, annoy my dog, and otherwise interact with him – I know your dog doesn’t know better, but you have to.
The best service dog etiquette suggestion I can give you is this: ignore the dog. I’m completely serious. If you can act like the dog is a cane or a crutch – something you make space for and try not to run into or step on, but nothing you pay any real attention to – you will be responding in the most appropriate way possible.
This kind of extends to how you talk to the service dog’s partners. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hudson dearly. However, it gets kind of annoying when EVERYONE has to ask me about my dog, and what he does, and how long we’ve been together, and tell me their story about their dog who’s just like him except small and brown and white (sadly, not an exaggeration). I love my dog, and dogs in general, but I like being a normal person, too. On bad days, I begin to feel like a zoo animal. People stare, and gee everyone wants to get all touchy-feely with me and my dog and know all about me. And I’ll admit, on those days, when I catch someone staring, I stare straight at their face, waiting for them to notice that I’ve seen them and then I raise my brows as if to ask ‘can I help you?’ On good days, yeah, I can dig that someone isn’t used to seeing a dog around and wants to share their affection for them, or hey they’re so surprised they just don’t know what to do. And yeah, some of the stuff my dog can do is really damn cool, and on good days, I even like showing off some of it. (Even on bad days, hearing someone exclaim over Hudson doing things like pressing door buttons and giving my wallet to cashiers doesn’t bother me. Most people would never even think of using a dog for a quarter of the things Hudson can do for me, and maybe seeing me will get them re-thinking what a service dog is capable of and who might use one.)
I’ll be frank with you – if you’re a stranger, and I’m politely answering your questions about my dog and what he does for me, I’m humoring you and it’s entirely dependant on MY good humor. On a bad day, you’re going to get short answers. Mad? Why? Do I owe you my attention and my time? If the answer was yes, you need to take a good hard think about that. It’s not about politeness, it’s about an expectation that I have an obligation to let you pry into my life. And if you ask me his name, I’m going to lie to you because when people bandy his name around, he knows it and he starts paying attention to that instead of to me. It’s a lot easier to just politely smile and give a false name than it is to explain this whole thing. I have a limited amount of capacity for explaining Service Dog 101, and some days I’m just not up to giving that schpiel to strangers.
You speak to a deaf person, not their interpretor. Yes, their interpretor turns your voice into sign and their signs into voice to translate, but they aren’t actually a part of the conversation.
You don’t move a person in a wheelchair as if they were a cart in the way, nor do you touch their wheelchair without permission any more than you would their person.
It’s the same with my dog. I know, he’s there, he’s got an adorable mug, and he’s kind of hard to ignore – much like an interpretor or a wheelchair (er, well, okay, I don’t know about adorable mugs…) But he’s there to help me, not for the rest of the world. Please, try to remember that the next time you’re around a service dog pair.
(I’ll probably post another time about service dogs and medical professionals, because believe it or not I’ve had a lot of low-level problems with them, to the point where I’m tempted to see if any of the local medical schools will let me come in and talk to their students about how to act around us. There should also be a later post about how my dog is my personal space, theoretically. If they don’t show up, blame the maybe-absence-seizure things.)
Oh, and if you’re curious about the person who pissed me off today? A woman passed me with a small dog on a leash. The dog was utterly out of control, lunging to the end of the leash, no leash manners whatsoever – something I see rather often with smaller dogs because people think there’s no harm. It was also barking its head off. The dog BIT HUDSON’S TAIL! Fortunately, it just came away with a bit of his fur and didn’t scratch his skin at all. The woman didn’t even stop, and when I said ‘Hey, your dog just BIT mine!’ she still didn’t stop. I couldn’t believe it, and my service dog was upset enough that he had an accident on the sidewalk not much later.