It was recently International Assistance Dog Week, August 7th-13th, it seems like a good idea to share some pointers for how to act around assistance dogs (who are also known as guide dogs, service dogs, and medical alert dogs, across different contexts). These canine companions work hard and sometimes the hardest part of what they do is dealing with well-intentioned humans who don’t know how to behave in their presence. Here are 4 tips on how to interact.
1.) Don’t ask if you can pet an assistance dog, and definitely don’t touch one without an invite:
It may seem fairly obvious to say “Don’t touch”, but some people don’t seem to actually realize that they shouldn't. With any dog, most of us usually know that it is not a good idea to try to pet an animal we don't know, as they can be very unpredictable in their responses. Assistance dogs are very well trained, and the aggressive ones tend not to pass the training school tests to be sure. Even so, it does not mean that you should touch them without an owner's invitation. These animals really are working when they are out and about with their owner. Being touched can be distracting for them. Even if they appear to be resting and off-duty, they're likely to be at least peripherally monitoring their handler. When you touch them, you are taking distracting them from their job and possibly inducing anxiety in them or their human. The only exception to the rule, naturally, is if you see a service dog in danger, in which case you should definitely act. But make sure, if there is time, you check with their handler. Explain what you are doing and why.
2.) Do make sure to keep your own dog on a short leash:
Assistance dogs and their handlers have no way of knowing how another dog will behave. If your dog is at all aggressive, (s)he could endanger a service dog and the handler. In fact, in some extreme cases, service dogs have been seriously injured or killed by another aggressive animal. Even if an assistance dog appears all right after a hostile encounter, the animal may be so traumatized that it is unable to work properly afterward. Although service animals are trained to stay calm in many different situations, they are still dogs, and can get nervous or aggressive when threatened. Certain dogs, like those who aid individuals with PTSD, have been trained to protect their owners, and another dog who is not on a leash, or who is on a loose leash, could be percieved as a threat.
3.) Understand the distinction between assistance dogs and emotional support/therapy dogs:
Therapy and emotional support dogs can be a huge help to their handlers. They help them to manage stress and feel more at ease, but they are not trained to do specific tasks and are not legally entitled to the same leeway in public places as other service dogs. So how can you tell the difference? Providing “support” and “comfort” is a non-specific task, whereas, for example, providing physical support to help someone stand, is. The crucial test is: Does the handler really need the support of the dog to do something physical, or can she do it on her own?
4.) Don’t demand to know why someone is using an assistance dog. Ever:
It's. Just. Insensitive. Many people immediately think of guide dogs for the blind, but these are by no means the only types of service dogs that exist, and someone who needs assistance may not appear disabled in the way you perceive disability. As an employee of a specific location, you are trying to determine whether a dog is allowed to enter a certain building or space, know that most countries have specific legislation on these matters. For example, in the US, you may only ask which tasks a dog performs, but not the reason why they perform those tasks. You are also not allowed to ask for an animal's papers, and a dog does not have to wear insignia of any type, although most service dog handlers use specially marked vests and/or collars.
It is important to be aware of these points. Service dogs and their handlers rely on the general public to help keep them safe.
Picture courtesy of www.salon.com