Service Dog Etiquette for Dog Lovers

A friend of mine asked after my rant about adults trying to pet Siddy while he’s in his vest, “Is there ever an appropriate time to pet a working dog in a vest or harness? Like when you’re just hanging around?” And I immediately started kicking myself, because in my rant I didn’t really mention what people SHOULD do if they’d like to pet the dog, just ranted a lot about what they should not do. Bad trainer, me.

Unfortunately there’s no way for me to let people down gently because the only safe answer is “No, there is never an appropriate time to ask to pet a working dog.” There’s a lot of reasons for this, and I’ll detail them below from my own experience using Beowulf (in dog-accessible places since his Public Access Skills aren’t up to snuff for things like restaurants and grocery stores and other REALLY HIGH-DISTRACTION areas) and Sid’s training outing.

1) You can’t tell by looking at someone what that person’s disability may be. Sure, it may look like the dog is just lying down hanging out while its handler waits for the waiter to bring her coffee and spinach quiche, but the dog may be a diabetic or seizure alert dog, or a hearing dog. These dogs need to have their attention focused on their handlers, which they can easily do while lying down next to a chair.

2) While to you it may just look like I’m hanging around, in fact I might have just gotten that hazelnut coffee I’ve wanted all day and settled into this comfy chair at Panera with my coffee and a spinach quiche, and I’m looking forward to some quiet people-watching time. You can’t tell by looking at me whether or not I want to talk to a stranger, or particularly whether I want to talk to the 800th stranger that day who wants to pet my dog. And what looks to you like we’re taking a break and my dog just nudged me so I’d pet him may in fact be my dog alerting me when I fogged out as he was trained to do, and I’m not really in a state to be coherent with a stranger yet.

3) If I let you pet my dog in public, I’ve just taught you and everyone watching that it’s OK to pester service dog handlers about petting their dogs. For all I know, you’re the big dork who is going to ask the next service dog handler you see, and when you’re told “no” you will whip out the “But other people let me do it!” line and then I’m the annoying service dog handler teaching people bad habits.

4) If I let you pet my dog while he’s in harness, I am blurring the line for him between “Working, must concentrate on my person” and “not working, I can be sociable with strangers.” Because I am using my dog to help me stay upright, I can’t take the chance that he may learn that it’s OK to schmooze people while he’s working and veer towards the next clueless person to make a smoochy noise at him. Letting you pet him while he’s working, even if we’re both taking a break, may lead directly to a situation that seriously endangers my safety.

5) I’m probably really, really, really tired at that point of people approaching me and asking about the dog, trying to distract the dog, expecting me to stop what I’m doing and educate them about the dog and about disability, asking me to reveal my medical problems to them because of the dog, or generally treating me like I’m invisible or have the dog with me for a conversation piece or I’m an evil gatekeeper to the dog just out to stop them from having an innocent good time fondling him. I’m just trying to get the things I need to do accomplished, to live my life, and people who will ignore the dog and treat a handler like a dogless human being are few and far between. By asking to pet the dog, you are putting yourself firmly in the camp of “people who don’t treat me like a real human being because of the dog.”

Let me try to tell you what using a service dog part-time has been like for me, using as an analogy something most everybody uses: shoes. You have a pair of shoes. They are the first shoes you have ever found that fit like they were made just for your feet and are really nice-looking shoes. In these shoes, you can go about your whole day and your feet and back and legs feel great and never get tired. In these shoes, you can conquer the whole damn world.

There’s just one problem with the shoes. They attract attention. The first couple of times people smiled at you and said “Nice shoes” it was pretty flattering, but then things started getting a little out of hand. People would stare at your shoes, wherever you went, in a way that made you feel like you were nothing but a way of displaying your wonderful shoes. People would approach you while you’re just trying to buy some milk at the store and get out and go home and expect you to tell them where you got the shoes, how the shoes are working out for you, and then listen to them tell you all about their favorite shoes. Disturbingly, some people will ask to touch your shoes. Sometimes they are still standing when they ask, but other times they are asking as they kneel down and reach out for your shoes. REALLY disturbingly, some people just lunge for your shoes without even asking. Once or twice, you’ve nearly tripped and fallen because someone was grabbing for your shoes. When you act alarmed that these people are trying to take your shoes away while you’re walking in them, people respond by being defensive and angry. Why would you be wearing such wonderful shoes, after all, if you didn’t want to let people touch them or you didn’t want to talk about them? Can’t you see how much they want to touch your fabulous shoes? Why are you being so mean by denying them something they want so much?

When you’re out and about, nobody talks to you about anything but your shoes. You might be in a class you’re really excited to take, because you want to meet other people who are interested in the subject matter, but the other students and the instructor just want to talk to you about your shoes. Even worse, they assume that your shoes are all you know about and act totally surprised when you speak up about things that are not shoe-related. When you ask for help in a shop, the person you’re talking to addresses your shoes rather than you. People say “good morning” to your shoes. People assume that you won’t be able to do things because you won’t want to get your shoes dirty, or you can’t do them because your shoes are not their idea of appropriate footwear for the activity, and they inform you of these exclusions as if you’re supposed to be grateful.

What you’re actually grateful for is the one or two people every day who treat you just like your shoes are nothing remarkable. You come to cherish the people who act as if they don’t even see your shoes. And despite the fact that you love your wonderful shoes, you begin to deeply, deeply wish you could find another pair of shoes that did not attract all this attention that worked for you, but no matter how many pairs you try on, you never can. You find some shoes that are kinda workable and sometimes you wear those just to avoid all the problems with your favorite shoes, even though you know that by the end of the day your feet and legs and back will be aching. After enough painful days, you start feeling pretty bitter towards all the people who make your life so much harder when you’re wearing your favorite shoes, because if they’d just be polite, it would make such a huge difference to you.

So what should you do when you see wonderful shoesa service dog and its handler? The answer is easy: ignore the dog. No matter how much you want to talk about the dog, touch the dog, ask the dog’s handler questions about the dog, tell the dog’s handler about your own dog — don’t. Treat the handler exactly like you are busy treating all the people in the world who do not have dogs with them. If you have a customer service job, or you actually need (not just want) to approach the dog handler, speak to the person, not the dog. Ignore the dog, no matter how hard it is for you. A service dog is not “just” a dog, to its handler it’s a trusted partner and a vital part of what its handler needs to get through the world. Remember too that service dog handlers deserve privacy about their medical issues just as much as everyone else, and asking “Why do you have the dog?” or “what does the dog do for you?” is exactly like asking “So, will you tell me about all your medical problems?” (i.e. none of your business).

The people I am going to happily let pet my service dog are the ones who see me and the dog when the dog is off-duty. In other words, my friends and family, people who might come to my house and hang out, or at whose house I might hang out long enough to ask if I could let my dog be off work, as it were. These are people I know pretty well, obviously. If you’re not one of those people, if you only see me and my dog in public situations, then I’m sorry but no. You can’t pet my dog, and you need to be OK with that.

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86 Responses to “Service Dog Etiquette for Dog Lovers”

  1. Melissa
    2229 on December 3rd, 2013

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! I have a diabetes alert dog, (I’m hypoglycemia unaware, so I can’t feel when my sugar is dropping to seizure territory), and I have people reaching for him randomly out of the blue everywhere. I wish there was a law that if someone touches your dog and the dog bites, it’s their own damn fault. Hands off my dog! I’ve gotten DO NOT PET tags for him because his former tags said “ask to pet” – too nice.

    Also, the added attention DOES distract him. It makes him nervous – like why are all these people looking at me?! When people just ignore him, as at my endocrinology office or a few other places, he just sits there doing his job, super low key.

  2. Cat
    0127 on September 26th, 2014

    Wow. I dont have the SD petting issues that you discuss here. My dog is beautiful and well behaved and will attract attention in most environments (except when she’s sitting under a dining table). I get that. If someone wants to pet her, I ask her to take a sit position and ok them to approach. Greeting people in this manner is simply one of her “tasks”. If I’m in a hurry, I just say so, excuse myself and keep the dog in heel. There is no confusion for her about what she must do. And nobody faults it if I must carry on- we are all busy. But if I allow the interaction, I do explain as they approach my dog that while they may pet this *particular* service dog because I have her trained for therapy (for volunteer work we do- not for my needs) in addition to the work she does for me. I explain that because different dogs are trained for different services, they should not ask to pet other service dogs who are usually not to take petting while they work. Nobody mistakes her for a pet. I will even share what she does for me if asked because dogs doing her work could help a lot of other people with the same (though almost always, less extreme) condition. I would never equate petting my dog to petting an item of clothing on my body. And if I take her to school, the professors most certainly do NOT spend the hour- or any time at all- discussing my SD. They want to get through their own material before the end of class.

  3. Darcy
    1953 on December 23rd, 2014

    Thank you! I found your post while trying to find sites to best explain to my public service staff on service animal etiquette. I appreciate your analogy, your candor, and your straight-forward instructions. I’d like to link to this if I may.

  4. Andrea
    1228 on July 23rd, 2015

    Please feel free to link!

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