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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’m glad to see people like Blue Buffalo (@bluebuffalo) | Twitter address it on social media to get the word out. 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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Sid Goes Out In Public

Yesterday marked the first time I’ve dragged Sid out in his green vest, which clearly identifies him as a Service Dog In Training and also includes patches which say “Working Dog Do Not Pet”. The end result of this first evaluation: Sid needs more work on leash walking in fascinating places like Tractor Supply, but is starting to get the hang of it, and I Hate People.

No, let me be precise: I hate adult people. Universally the children we ran into today who wanted to interact with Sid saw the patches, read the patches, and did not attempt to interfere with Sid. One boy paused on his way out of Home Depot to look me in the eyes and say “Nice dog.” I smiled and said “thank you” because hey, Sid is a nice dog and the kid was fantastic.

The adults, though? Oh, the adults. One man behind us in line at Tractor Supply said to his kids, “His patches say he’s a working dog.” and then proceeded to reach out and try to pet Sid. I said, “Please don’t, he’s in training. That’s why his patches say not to pet him.” And the guy responds, I shit you not, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” while trying out a sheepish smile on me.

Really, Mr. Anonymous Guy in Tractor Supply? REALLY NOW? Sid, on the other hand, was pretty golden, he eyed the guy’s hand, gave it an indifferent but polite sniff, and then moved so I was between him and Mr. Anonymous Partially Literate Guy. I gave him a chunk of hot dog for it.

He was balanced out by the young girl in the same store who started to approach Sid (I’d seen her ogling him from afar), saw his patches, and settled for just hanging around to stare at him, which was a little creepy but I’m totally OK with a little creepy since she was being very polite.

Let me insert a pic of Sid in his vest here. Perhaps I need to have LIGHT UP BLINKY PATCHES for the adults, who are apparently either illiterate or convinced that their desire to pet a dog trumps my need to train the dog. Not that I’m, y’know, bitter or anything. One thing that works against me is that Sid is a damn good lookin dog, so he attracts more attention than a less notable looking dog would. The thing that works for me is that Sid is not terribly interested in strangers and sometimes even looks like he wishes they would stop bothering him. He got lots of hot dog bits to encourage him to keep ignoring the impolite strangers. Now I just need to work on him not following Daniel after he realizes that’s what I’m doing.

Oh, right, I was putting in a pic… I’ll just put it in huge and full-sized so everyone can admire my handsome dog in his spiffy vest. Please note the cool collar with flames and skulls.
A shot of the front half of Sid's body, coincidentally with my legs in jeans also in frame. Sid is wearing a dark green vest with a soft raised handle. A patch on the side of the vest says Working Dog Do Not Pet, patches on the top say Service Dog In Training. There is another working dog patch on the other side which you can't see. Also he has a really, really cool collar with flames and skulls.

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Sid Training Log, part the whatevereth

Today we worked on placement, as in “put yourself where I point.” Sid did under the desk, at my feet, under the other desk, and on top of a rubbermaid container, and did it all in a mobility harness. I’m not putting weight on him yet, of course, but I do like to work him in harness so that the harness is associated with Fun Interactions Involving Cheese, as well as with “working, must be Srs Dog”.

A couple pics:
This picture is at a really wonky angle, please forgive.  It shows Sid, a black Shedder who is seven months old, wearing a dark brown leather harness which has a stiff handle (actually reinforced with metal) sticking up 3 inches above his backbone.  Imagine a guide dog harness (the kind where the straps go over the shoulders instead of across the chest) if the handle was rigidly attached to the harness so it went straight up, and also very short.  His front feet are up on a blue rubbermaid box which is about 16 inches wide by 2 feet long.

This was the beginning of getting him onto the box. I knew he could get his whole body on the box because he’d done it previously in order to lick my ear while I was sitting in my chair, but he was weirdly reluctant today. No matter, some cheese and a clicker changed all that! Behold:
Sid, in harness, sits on top of the rubbermaid box with a happy face!

I did eventually get him to lie down on top of the box, but he wouldn’t hold it long enough for me to get a picture. Trust me, it was adorable. He’s a pretty adorable dog. And he has such fun training in harness or out! He’s a great joy to train for me because patience is my downfall as a trainer, and Sid picks things up FAST. This means I spend less time breaking behaviors down into bitty steps and shaping them from there, which lowers my frustration levels quite a bit. I do need to get more systematic about training, though, because right now we’re working on the “what seems fun today” system and that’s likely to leave gaps in Siddy’s education.

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One thing I forgot to mention…

Since Emma brought it up in a comment to the last post on neutering:

Just curious, but has the fact that your Mobile Cane may turn into Horny Boy Dog (i.e., Siddy comes across an intact female) while working factored into your decision?

This is not a “go neuter that boy!” comment by the way, since I fully agree with adult neutering for structural soundness — just a curious reader question.

This had, in fact, occurred to me! And one of the things that has factored into my decision to neuter Sid late is that I am reasonably confident of my ability as a trainer to teach him to work through it. Reasonably confident, mind you, not 100% sure, because I am a competent but not brilliant trainer.

I know people who are really good trainers, like my friend Roz who has the patience of a saint[1], or Rox’E at Pawpower Creations who trains her own guide dogs. I know people who do flyball and have achieved actual obedience titles with their dogs. I know people who have way more experience than I do training their own mobility dogs.

Me, I intend to secure the help of a professional and spend a lot of time chanting calming mantras while Sid and I click-and-treat our way to being a working team. But I’m reasonably confident we can do it, and that I can sublimate Sid’s sex drive into work, at least for the most part.

In other news, I ordered Siddy a green vest today with patches on it that say “SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING” and “WORKING DOG DO NOT PET”. It feels like some kind of milestone. Also, he fits into the smaller of the two mobility harnesses I own, so he’s been wearing it to do training, just to get him “in the mood” as it were. He’s fine with the harness, so I expect he will be fine with the much less obtrusive vest.


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Playing the Clicker Game

Having introduced Sid to a clicker while we were in Kentucky, we’re using it for Training Time here now. Yesterday, we worked on recall (come when called), sit, down, sit-stay, down-stay, and “wave” (in which Sid waves his right front paw at me).

The major accomplishment was fading the lure for sit and down. That means that I am no longer using a piece of food to move him into position, but just moving my empty hand like the food is in it, and he’s performing just fine. The next step will be fading the signals so that I’m not using such broad hand gestures, and then pairing verbal cues to the behaviors so that I can use my voice if my hands are full.

Having successfully faded the lures, that leaves us “Zen” and “Touch” in Level One of the training series I’m working him on. Also I need to quit dithering around and pick out Dog School and take him to obedience classes. One, classes would give me more structure and a little sense of urgency, and two it would give Sid the experience of working around other people and other dogs. I’m aiming to get him his Canine Good Citizen award, plus his work as a Service Dog will take place in what you might call a “distraction-rich environment” (i.e. the real world) so the more experience he gets working out and about, the better!

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The Notorious S. I. D.

Today, after English class, comes a trip down to Blackthorn Kennel to hang out, enjoy the company, and oh yeah, pick up Service Dog Candidate #1 for a 30 day trial run.

The dog in question is Obsidian, of the O litter (obviously), a dog I have kind of adored since I first snorgled him at 14 days old. In fact, as he got older, I was forbidden (by myself and Christine) to take him for a week for socializing, because we both knew he’d NEVER LEAVE.

Well, anyway, what with one thing and another and my pain levels and planning for service doggery, it occurred to us that Sid would actually be a pretty good candidate dog: confident, people-oriented, worky but not so insanely worky he’ll drive me nuts, and should be big enough to work well as a mobility/balance dog. So he’s coming home with me and Daniel to start a 30 day evaluation, in which I will drag him out in public and work on some training with him and generally see if I think he and I can get where we need to go as a team, which is to say enough obedience to achieve public access and enough concern for me and even more training that he can be Mr. Hairy Cane. One plus is that he’s about seven months old now, which cuts down the wait time until his growth plates have fused and he can do weight-bearing work.

Pictures of course, will follow.

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Baseline Service Dog Training

It will come as no surprise to people who know me that I am reading obsessively on service dog training lately. I thought I’d share, for interest’s sake, the minimum standards for training as put out by Assistance Dogs International. I’ve re-formatted it from the original to show the actual scoring criteria under the item being tested. It’s worth noting that only one of my dogs comes close to passing this, and that’s Beowulf. He would fail and fail hard in the restaurant portion, though. But these are the things that my future Service Dog candidate will be mastering in its first few months of training. Bold items are mandatory. A means “Always”, M means “Most of the time” (more than 50%), S means “Sometimes” (less than 50%), and N means “Never”.

I was actually kind of shocked to discover how low these standards are. As I noted to a friend, it’s worth mentioning that the one dog who comes closest to passing is Beowulf, and he is coincidentally the one dog that I did structured training classes with. Part of it, of course, is also his temperament. Beowulf is a laid-back dog who is not the most confident but does trust his person when that person says the situation is OK.

Anyway, since it will be a couple years before potential service dogs are ready to do weight-bearing work as my Hairy Cane, we’ll have time to perfect these standards. Why aim for just passing, when we can aim for acing it?

DISMISSAL: Any dog that displays any aggressive behavior (growling, biting, raising hackles, showing teeth, etc.) will be eliminated from the test. Any dog that eliminates in a building or shows uncontrollable behavior will be eliminated from the test.

1. CONTROLLED UNLOAD OUT OF VEHICLE: After a suitable place has been found, the individual will unload the dog and any necessary equipment (wheelchair, walker, crutches, etc.) out of the vehicle. The dog must wait until released before coming out of the vehicle. Once outside, it must wait quietly unless otherwise instructed by the Individual. The dog may not run around, be off lead, or ignore commands given by the individual. Once the team is out of the vehicle and settled, the assistant should walk past with another dog. they should walk within six (6) feet of the team. The Assistance Dog must remain calm and under control, not pulling or trying to get to the other dog. The emphasis on this is that the Assistance Dog remain unobtrusive and is unloaded in the safest manner possible for everyone.

__YES __NO The dog waited in the vehicle until released.
___YES ___NO The dog waited outside the vehicle under control.
___YES ___NO The dog remained under control while another dog was walked past.

2. APPROACHING THE BUILDING: After unloading, the team must maneuver through the parking lot to approach the building. The dog must stay in a relative heel position and may not forge ahead or lag behind. The dog must not display a fear of cars or traffic noises and must display a relaxed attitude. When the individual stops for any reason, the dog must stop also.

__A __M __S __N The dog stayed in relative heel position.
___YES __NO The dog was calm around traffic.
__A __M __S __N The dog stopped when the individual came to a halt.

3. CONTROLLED ENTRY THROUGH A DOORWAY: Once at the doors of the building, the individual may enter however he/she chooses to negotiate the entry safely. Upon entering the building; however, the dog may not wander off or solicit attention from the public. The dog should wait quietly until the team is fully inside then should calmly walk beside the individual. The dog must not pull or strain against the lead or try to push its way past the individual but must wait patiently while entry is completed.

___YES __NO The dog waited quietly at the door until commanded to enter.
___YES __NO The dog waited on the inside until able to return to heel position.

4. HEELING THROUGH THE BUILDING: Once inside the building, the individual and the dog must walk through the area in a controlled manner. The dog should always be within touching distance where applicable or no greater than a foot away from the individual. The dog should not solicit public attention or strain against the lead (except in cases where the dog may be pulling the individual’s wheelchair). The dog must readily adjust to speed changes, turn corners promptly, and travel through a crowded area without interacting with the public. In tight quarters, the dog must be able to get out of the way of obstacles and not destroy merchandise by knocking it over or by playing with it.

__A __M __S __N The dog was within the prescribed distance of the individual.
__A __M __S __N The dog ignored the public, remaining focused on the individual.
__A __M __S __N The dog readily adjusted to speed changes.
__A __M __S __N The dog readily turned corners–did not have to be tugged or jerked to change direction.
__A __M __S __N The dog readily maneuvered through tight quarters.

5. SIX FOOT RECALL ON LEAD: A large, open area should be found for the six foot recall. Once found, the individual will perform a six foot recall with the dog remaining on lead. The individual will sit the dog, leave it, travel six feet, then turn and call the dog to him/her. The dog should respond promptly and not stop to solicit attention from the public or ignore the command. The dog should come close enough to the individual to be readily touched. For Guide Dogs, they must actually touch the person to indicate location. The recall should be smooth and deliberate without the dog trudging to the individual or taking any detours along the way.

___YES __NO The dog responded readily to the recall command–did not stray away, seek attention from others, or trudge slowly.
___YES __NO The dog remained under control and focused on the individual.
___YES __NO The dog came within the prescribed distance of the individual.
___YES __NO The dog came directly to the individual.

6. SITS ON COMMAND: The team will be asked to demonstrate the Individual’s ability to have the dog sit three different times. The dog must respond promptly each time with no more than two commands. There should not be any extraordinary gestures on the part of the people approaching the dog. Normal, reasonable behavior on the part of the people is expected.

__A __M __S __N The dog responded promptly to the command to sit.

The first sit will be next to a plate of food placed upon the ground. The dog must not attempt to eat or sniff the food. The individual may correct the dog verbally or physically away from the food, but then the dog must maintain a sit while ignoring the food. The dog should not be taunted or teased with the food. This situation should be made as realistic as possible.

___YES __NO The dog remained under control around food–not trying to get food and not needing repeated corrections.

The second sit will be executed, and the assistant with a shopping cart will approach within three feet of the dog and continue on past. The dog should maintain the sit and not show any fear of the shopping cart. If the dog starts to move, the individual may correct the dog to maintain the sit.

___YES __NO The dog remained composed while the shopping cart passed–did not shy away, show signs of fear, etc. shopping cart should be pushed normally and reasonably, not dramatically.

The last sit will be a sit with a stay as a person walks up behind the team, talks to the person and then pets the dog. The dog must hold position. The dog may not break the stay to solicit attention. The individual may repeat the stay command along with reasonable physical corrections.

___YES __NO The dog maintained a sit-stay while being petted by a stranger.

7. DOWNS ON COMMAND: The down exercises will be performed in the same sequence as the sits with the same basic stipulations. The first down will be at a table where food will be dropped on the floor. The dog should not break the down to go for the food or sniff at the food. The individual may give verbal and physical corrections to maintain the down. There should not be any extraordinary gestures on the part of the people approaching the dog. Normal, reasonable behavior from the people is expected.

__A __M __S __N The dog responded promptly to the command to down.
___YES __NO The dog remained under control around the food–not trying to get food and not needing repeated corrections.

The second down will be executed, and then an adult and child should approach the dog. The dog should maintain the down and not solicit attention. If the child pets the dog, the dog must behave appropriately and not break the stay. The individual may give verbal and physical corrections if the dog begins to break the stay.

___YES ___NO The dog remained in control while the child approached–child should not taunt dog or be overly dramatic.

8. NOISE DISTRACTION: The team will be heeling along and the tester will drop a clipboard to the ground behind the team. The dog may acknowledge the noise, but may not in any way show aggression or fear. A normal startle reaction Is fine–the dog may jump and or turn–but the dog should quickly recover and continue along on the heel. The dog should not become aggressive, begin shaking, etc.

___YES __NO The dog remained composed during the noise distraction.

9. RESTAURANT: The team and tester should enter a restaurant and be seated at a table. The dog should go under the table or, if size prevents that, stay close by the individual. The dog must sit or lie down and may move a bit for comfort during the meal, but should not be up and down a lot or need a lot of correction or reminding. This would be a logical place to do the food drop during a down. (See #7)

___YES __NO The dog is unobtrusive and out of the way of patrons and employees as much as possible.
___YES __NO The dog maintained proper behavior, ignoring food and being quiet.

10. OFF LEAD: Sometime during the test, where appropriate, the person will be instructed to drop the leash while moving so it is apparent to the dog. The individual must show the ability to maintain control of the dog and get the leash back in its appropriate position. this exercise will vary greatly depending on the person’s disabilities. The main concern is that the dog be aware that the leash is dropped and that the person Is able to maintain control of the dog and get the leash back into proper position.

___YES __NO When told to drop the leash, the team maintained control and the individual got the leash back in position.

11. DOG TAKEN BY ANOTHER PERSON To show that the dog can be handled by another person without aggression or excessive stress or whining, someone else will take the dog’s leash and passively hold the dog (not giving any commands) while the dog’s partner moves 20′ away.

___YES ___NO Another person can take the dog’s leash and the dog’s partner can move away without aggression or undue stress on the part of the dog.

12. CONTROLLED UNIT: The team will leave the building in a similar manner to entering, with safety and control being of prime importance. The team will proceed across the parking lot and back to the vehicle. The dog must be in appropriate heel position and not display any fear of vehicle or traffic sounds.

__A __M __S __N The dog stayed in relative heel position.
___YES __NO The dog was calm around traffic.
__A __M __S __N The dog stopped when the individual came to a halt.

13. CONTROLLED LOAD into VEHICLE: The individual will load the dog into the vehicle, with either entering first. The dog must not wander around the parking lot but must wait patiently for instructions. Emphasis is on safety and control.

___YES ___NO The dog waited until commanded to enter the vehicle.
___YES ___NO The dog readily entered the vehicle upon command.

__A __M __S __N When the dog did well, the person praised the dog.
__A __M __S __N The dog is relaxed, confident, and friendly.
__A __M __S __N The person kept the dog under control.