Recently, we were in Orlando for one night and we spent some time Downtown Disney. As usual, there were a lot of people around but our entire family noticed one specific woman because she was walking with a dog. As they passed us, the dog started barking loudly. The woman stopped, reprimanded the dog and when he responded to her commands and stopped barking, she rewarded him with treats. She then immediately walked by us again, in the opposite direction. Again, the dog started to bark as they passed us and she repeated the same actions as before but glanced at my 6 year old daughter and said, “That’s the stimulus.” Confused whether she was talking to me or to herself, I pointed at my daughter and said, “Her?” She stopped to explain to us that her dog is a service dog because she suffers from seizures and that as the passed us, my daughter’s running and sudden movements caused him to bark. She told us how she takes the dog out to crowded places so he can learn to concentrate on her and not let outside noises or sounds affect his behavior. She also took the time to explain to my kids how the dog helps her and that his job is to take care of her and help her if she starts not to feel well. It was a great learning experience for both of my kids.
I then made the mistake of looking at the dog and talking directly to him and was immediately reprimanded by the woman. Being that I know about service dogs, I should have known better, but the dog was so cute that I couldn’t help but acknowledge him.
A few days later, I found an e-mail in my inbox titled “Tips on Saying Hello to a Service Dog” and I felt like someone was trying to tell me a little something. You know, the Nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence was trying to teach me the proper etiquette for interacting with an assistance dog.
So. I’ll start off by saying that service dogs are not your ordinary pet dogs. They are actually working and sometimes the life of their human partner lies in their hands. They have gone through years of training to have the ability to help this person and we should all remember a few guidelines when meeting a service dog.
Do not touch the dog without asking permission first. Attention is a distraction for the dog which may prevent the dog from working. Be sensitive to the fact that the dog is working and may be in the middle of a command or direction. Most dogs will need to be verbally “released” from work mode to interact with a person other than their human partner.
Never feed the dog. He may be on a special diet and food is the ultimate distraction to the working dog and can jeopardize the health of both the dog and the person.
Speak to the person, not the assistance dog (this was my mistake above). Most handlers do not mind talking about assistance dogs and their dog specifically, if they have the time.
Do not whistle or make sounds to the dog. This again may provide a dangerous distraction.
Never make assumptions about the individual’s intelligence, feelings or capabilities. Offers of help are appreciated, but ask first. Usually, the human/dog team can get the task done by themselves.
Don’t be afraid of the dog. There is no need to be afraid of a dog from a fully accredited program like Canine Companions for Independence. Dogs are carefully tested and selected for appropriate temperament and have been professionally trained to have excellent manners. Always approach an assistance dog calmly and speak to their human partner before touching or addressing the dog.
Please remember these tips the next time you see a working dog.