Earlier today, I had the opportunity to attend an event at my university that taught students about service dogs and therapy dogs. The event was designed to spread awareness on proper service dog etiquette, and to highlight the differences between service dogs and therapy dogs. While I do not have a service dog of my own, one of my professors encouraged me to share my thoughts about how to interact with service dogs. Read on to learn more about service dogs and how to interact with them.
What is a service dog?
A service dog is an assistance dog that is trained specifically to help people with disabilities. These dogs often go through training with nonprofit organizations, starting as young as nine weeks old, and learn specific commands in order to assist their owner. Service dogs are allowed to go most places with their owners, and are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects against discrimination for people with disabilities.
Examples of service dogs
Examples of service dogs include guide dogs, mobility/physical assist dogs, seizure alert dogs, allergy alert dogs, diabetic assistance dogs, PTSD dogs, autism assistance dogs, and many others. Some service dogs may be trained for more than one function- for example, I know a border collie that is trained as both a guide dog and seizure alert dog.
Service dogs vs therapy dogs
A therapy dog is a companion dog that is certified by an organization, such as Petsmart Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. Owners go through the training with their personal dogs, and once the training is complete, the owner/dog team is tested by certified trainers. If they pass, then they can go to pre-approved visits at places such as nursing homes, hospitals, women’s shelters, schools, respite care, libraries, and more- anywhere the love of the dog can brighten someone’s day. They are not service dogs, and people cannot randomly bring therapy dogs places without prior approval. Read more about therapy dogs in my post about therapy dog reading programs here.
Do service dogs get a break?
A common question is if service dogs ever get the opportunity to act like normal dogs and run around. When service dogs are off harness or off duty, they are treated like normal dogs. Just like how I don’t use my blindness cane in my dorm room, people don’t always need their service dogs in the house, so the dog has the opportunity to relax. Read more about adopting companion dogs here.
Why petting can be dangerous
Service dogs are trained to work in a variety of conditions, but can get distracted if someone touches or pets them. As a result, most service dog owners do not let people pet their dogs, because they need them to remain focused. Imagine if you were assigned a job, like pouring a glass of water, and someone just started touching you randomly. You’d probably get distracted and spill the water, meaning you weren’t able to do your assigned job. For service dogs, if they stop concentrating, their owner would get hurt, have a medical emergency, or another serious issue.
Avoid taking pictures
It may be tempting to take pictures of a random dog in public, but taking pictures of service dogs can feel like a violation of privacy, or make the owner feel like they are being targeted. Plus, if the flash goes off, there is a chance the dog could lose focus, or the owner could have an adverse reaction- read my post on how using multiple camera flashes can affect people here. Of course, you can always ask permission to take a picture, but I don’t recommend it if the dog is actively working. For the cover image in this post, I asked the owner first and they gave the dog a command so I could take the picture (though it’s worth noting I have known the owner and dog for almost two years).
Acknowledge the owner
It’s easy to get excited over seeing a dog and forget that there is someone walking with said dog. Make sure to acknowledge the owner and talk to them directly, making eye contact with them if possible. It’s not uncommon for people to talk to the dog and avoid looking at the owner, but this can be very frustrating and also potentially distract the dog. If needed, pretend the dog is invisible so you can focus on the owner. Read more about how to approach people with low vision without scaring them here.
What if I accidentally bump into a dog?
While I was at a conference, I found myself surrounded by more service dogs than I had ever seen in my life. One downside to this was that I had trouble seeing where the dogs were lying down or standing, especially if it was a black lab lying down on black carpet. I would accidentally tap the dog with my blindness cane, trip over a paw, or otherwise interrupt the dog. If the owner did not see or hear me, I would alert them that I had accidentally bumped into the dog, and then keep walking. Read more about attending conferences with low vision here.
Remember they are dogs
Dogs are animals, and not every animal is always on their best behavior. Service dogs may growl, bark, or go to the bathroom unexpectedly, just like any other dog. This does not mean they are untrained or posing as a fake service dog, they just might be overwhelmed or not have been able to find a relief area in time. While they are very well trained, no dog is perfect.
How can I help people with service dogs?
One of the best things you can do to help people with service dogs is to educate others about how to behave around service dogs, as well as focus on the owner, not the dog. Think of a service dog as any other piece of assistive technology that helps someone to go through their day, like a blindness cane (although people are divided over whether service dogs qualify as assistive technology- a very interesting debate you can read more about here). Learn more about being an ally for disabled friends here.
Service dogs are awesome, and getting a service dog can be a life-changing experience for their owner. I end this post with a picture of the mobility/physical assistance dog who inspired me to write about service dogs, Grady the goldendoodle.