This is Murray—he’s a three-year-old black lab, cute as anything, and my friend’s guide dog (you may have met him and Steve in this post!). I have two friends with guide dogs that help them get around confidently without sight, and another friend with type 1 diabetes who has a medical service dog who is trained to alert her when her blood sugar level starts dropping. Over the past year or so, I’ve watched how people act around these service dogs in public—so, I’ll pass my tips on, with the hope that more people will act in a way to allow these dogs do their job at their very best: keeping their human partners safe!
Service animals can be trained for a variety of tasks. While guide dogs for people who are visually impaired can help safely guide their handlers across streets, through construction and even avoid branches or other dangers that might be in the human’s way, there are a host of other ways dogs can be trained to help people with disabilities or medical conditions. Service dogs can be trained to catch people with poor balance if they fall, retrieve items or turn on and off lights, fetch medications and other items, and open doors (to name a few things!). Dogs can also alert those with hearing impairments to specific sounds, such as the phone or fire alarm. And, as above, service pups can be trained to alert people with diabetes to low blood sugar, guide people with epilepsy to a safe location before a seizure starts, and provide emotional support to those with mental health conditions.
Identifying a service animal: Service dogs will typically wear a harness or jacket identifying them as a service dog. Though rarer, service monkeys, as well as miniature horses, do exist—these animals may not be as clearly identifiable as a service animal (although, how often otherwise would you see a monkey or horse hanging out in public?!). Whatever the animal, most of the time, it should be pretty clear that they are working if you spend a moment or two observing!
Don’t be a distraction: The absolute best thing you can do when you encounter a service animal? Pretend it’s not there! If the animal comes towards you and it’s not supposed to, the handler will usually redirect the animal per their training. If you have questions of what’s appropriate, ask the handler: especially if they’re visually impaired, they might be happy to be informed if their dog approaches you—for instance, my friend’s hypoglycemia alert dog nudged my shoulder with her head to say hello the other day when I got in the car, which was okay; my friends guide dogs (Murray and Marcus, Gerry’s dog), will often stick their heads in my face if I bend down to tie my shoes—and upon meeting, Murray often walks toward me and jumps up to say hi. It’s up to their human partner what they choose to redirect: so, the guys might not care if the dogs come and stick their noses at me tying my shoes, so long as it doesn’t become a habit when they see any passerby doing the same! Also avoid audibly distracting the dog by calling out to them.
Not being a distraction also means…
Hands off: Everyone with a service animal will have different rules of when/if people can touch their service animal. This is particularly difficult with dogs, as sometimes it is almost instinct to want to pat a puppy! Take it back to the elementary school years keep your hands to yourself. If you just can’t resist, ask the handler first—and if they say no, that means no.
Each time a service animal is pet by someone other than the handler, it may cause potential harm to the owner by desensitizing the animal to its training. For instance, a guide dog who is pet at an intersection may be distracted and not remain focused on helping the handler to cross the street properly. This story also shows how medical alert dogs becoming distracted can cause danger for their handlers—in this case, a woman with a seizure disorder’s dog was unable to alert her to an impending seizure in time, and she sustained injuries as she was unable to move to a safe place before her seizure began.
Yes, “hands off” applies to guide dogs, too! Don’t think that because someone has a guide dog doesn’t mean they can’t tell if you touch their dog. The handler partner and dog are very used to one another—the handler may be able to sense the change in their dog when you pet them and aren’t supposed to (I’ve spent a bit of time hanging with blind dudes, and you’d be surprised what they pick up on, even if they have no sight at all!)—and, if I’m acting as a sighted guide for one of my friends and their dog is walking with us, I will absolutely out a person for petting the dogs without asking (if that happens to be Murray you’re petting without asking, Steve will revoke your petting privileges when he often would otherwise say yes!).
Teach kids about service animals. Few things make me smile more than hearing an adult tell a kid “Yes, that doggy is working—that means we can’t touch him.” Even if the kid is too young to really understand, it helps set the stage for them to understand in the future. (For young kids, of course, this reinforces that no dogs—even pets!—should be touched without asking the owner first.)
Yes, he’s cute, but ignore him. And, to go full circle: The best thing you can do when you do encounter a service animal? Ignore him or her. As I said when my friend with the diabetes alert dog commented on the article I shared above on Facebook about people coming into her office and petting her dog, “She’s working, and you don’t pet your coworkers!” Yep, makes it sound pretty ridiculous, right? But remember, if the harness is on, it’s working time for the dog.
And, if you do have a special guide dog in your life that you want to show appreciation, ask its owner how you can do that! Steve, Gerry and I are going to have a day where we go hang out and they take the dogs off harness for a bit so I can have puppy playtime. Because hardworking service animals deserve play with all their work!