Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Service Dog Etiquette
While not wordless, I waited until Wednesday to post this in the hope of engaging Blogville in an effort to get the word out about behavior around service dogs. For years, we've discussed how to educate the public about approaching strange dogs, to make our own dogs safer. However, recently the topic of service dogs and strangers has become more personal as my niece has been struggling with the issue since getting her service dog, Darcy, pictured here. She was a rescue, who she had trained to be her service dog. While more people are getting service dogs, the public is still relatively unaware of how to behave around a working dog. This has made her life challenging, as people don't seem to understand the basic etiquette for service dogs. I hope we in Blogville can work towards changing that.
I believe we have made a difference in educating people about how to interact safely with our pet dogs. I think we can turn that towards educating the public about safely interacting with an ever growing number of service dogs. The range of jobs service dogs perform is growing. While the public seems to recognize the physical services dogs can perform, dogs are also being trained in medical detection and assistance, as well as in mental health capacities. When these dogs are in public, they are working dogs. It is important that people understand the different roles played by pet and service dog.
There is an important distinction between working professional and pet dog. Sadly not just children, but adults need to be reminded that service dogs are providing valuable assistance and distracting them from the work they do is irresponsible. While the dogs are trained to ignore distractions, the effort involved with ignoring those distractions is effort not being put towards the tasks assigned to the dog. The damage caused can range from minor annoyances to major issues. The ultimate goal is for service dogs to be no more of an interest to the public than a wheel chair or a cane. The fact that the dog is alive and cuter than most medical devises shouldn't mean people can't control themselves and act responsibly.
Think of the dog as a dentist working with a drill. Would you want someone walking into the dentist's office as he/she is drilling your teeth distracting him/her while the drill is doing critical work? That is the image to keep in mind when you see a dog working. You don't know what the dog's tasks are and how failure to achieve those tasks could impact the person.
Humans are curious by nature. However, it is important to remember is that it isn't our job to know what the diagnosis is that the dog is trained to manage unless the person wants us to know. You may see a stranger in a wheel chair, walking with a cane or walker, but how many of you feel you have a right to ask why he/she needs that medical device? How did he/she get one? How much did it cost? How long did he/she have to wait to get one? While dogs are not inanimate objects, they are medically prescribed and you have no more rights to ask a stranger why they have a service dog than why they have a medical device. As I said humans are curious, it doesn't mean we need to be rude. Some people are more than happy to discuss the dog with you. However, what if anything they wish to discuss is up to the individual.
As you may have noticed, I told you my niece has a service dog, but not why. That is her story to tell. When and who she chooses to share that with is her business. She was kind enough to share her pictures with me for this story. While she was willing to share more of her story, I chose not to for this article. It is enough to know she has a medical prescription for a service dog. Beyond that, there is no need to know, unless she chooses to share it with people. At some point, I may write another blog about Darcy and do that.
I think it is also important to know a person isn't necessarily being mean or rude if he/she chooses not to interact with you while out with the service dog. Some people are very enthusiastic and willing to talk about their experiences with the service dog. Others have a dog because it is the only way that person leaves the house and gets to his/her daily tasks. Like anything else people fall on a spectrum. Not everyone feels education and advocacy is one of his/her daily goals. Just because you see a dog, it doesn't mean it is the duty of that person to educate you or your child on the duties of the dog or give a show of what the dog can do. A working dog is not an entertainer; it is present to care for the person assigned to it. Don't take it personally. If you want to learn more about service animals there are plenty of ways to educate yourself and your children, random strangers are generally not the best option.
One thing not required by all states, but I do think helps the public is when services dogs are identified as such. If you notice in these pictures, Darcy is vested. Depending on the situation, the vest allows her to wear different patches to help the public be more aware of her job. While I can understand those with service animals may feel this is restrictive, it is a non-verbal message that identifies the dog as a working dog. While this won't work on all, as education becomes more wide spread about the work of service animals, being able to identify one should make it easier for those with working dogs to be left alone. It also makes for fewer questions when animals are entering areas where only service dogs are allowed, pets are not. It is a small price to pay to help create more awareness and tolerance for service dogs.
I know I'm preaching to the choir in Blogville, however, it is our mission to go beyond our borders to get the word out to others about this issue. The number of service dogs is increasing and the lack of knowledge about how to interact with them in public is creating challenges for those who need the animals to be focused on work and not be distracted by the uniformed and the curious. I don't think the vast majority of people mean to do harm, they just don't understand the harm they do. That is where we can make a difference through education and advocacy.