As those of you who know me in real life, follow @RivertheWonderdale on Instagram, or keep up with my blog Accio Adventure know, I am the very proud “mother” of a three year old Airedale Terrier named River. I got River as a puppy after two therapists and a psychiatrist suggested I get a dog for emotional support and to make me responsible for someone else/help me keep a better schedule. For two and a half years, River offered me love, emotional support, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. There were times when I was suicidally depressed and River was the biggest reason I didn’t kill myself. My family were a huge reason, too, but I couldn’t abandon River and leave her wondering why I left her. I knew she would never understand. Last June, I had to be hospitalized for mania and when I got out, my therapist and psychiatrist and I talked and decided that River was getting a promotion. Now, in addition to being my very best friend, River is my service dog. Service dogs are dogs trained in specific tasks to help ameliorate a person’s disability. We will talk more later in the year about Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs and the differences between the three, but for now I just want to do a PSA on service dog etiquette.
This blog post is happening this week because of a specific incident that happened, but I encounter problematic behavior almost every time River and I go out. This week, it was a woman getting mad and saying River looked depressed after I asked her to please stop talking to River because she was distracting her. People regularly try to pet River without even asking even when she is wearing her service dog vest that has a patch on it saying “Invisibility cloak out of order. If you can see me, DO NOT PET.” People do a lot of other things that they shouldn’t do as well. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to service dogs as she/her, but a service dog can be any gender and any breed. Without further ado, here are some basic etiquette guidelines:
#1 Do not distract the dog or interfere with her job. This includes making kissy noises, calling to her, staring at her, and talking to her. The best practice is to ignore the dog completely. If she is paying attention to you, she isn’t paying attention to her handler, which could be very dangerous for the handler depending on the reason he or she has a service dog. You don’t want to be the reason a handler isn’t alerted to an impending seizure or panic attack. You probably didn’t know this, but it’s a class 2 misdemeanor in my state to interfere with a service animal’s work. Almost all states have similar laws and in some states it’s even a felony.
#2 Do not ask about the handler’s disability or other private health information. Unless the handler offers up the information unasked, this is invasive and is really none of your business. This includes such questions and statements as “Why do you have a service dog?” “What kind of service dog is that?” “But you don’t look sick.” “Are you training that dog for a blind person?” Someone having a service dog doesn’t mean they owe you any explanations. People don’t have service dogs to amuse others, they have service dogs because they need them. This is the case even if you are an employee of a business and see a service dog enter the premises. In that case, the only questions you are legally allowed to ask are “Is that a service dog?” and “What tasks does she perform?” It’s also impolite to ask how much someone has paid to have their service dog trained. Finances aren’t generally discussed with strangers in polite conversation and service dog finances are no exception. If you don’t work at a business and are just a curious bystander, don’t ask what tasks the dog performs. In many cases, that can give away what condition the service dog is for and the handler may be uncomfortable saying.
#3 Do not be offended if a handler doesn’t want to stop and chat. They may be busy or not feeling well. If you aren’t familiar with Spoon Theory, I highly suggest familiarizing yourself. The basic gist is that people with disabilities often just don’t have as much energy as people without disabilities. Some days when someone makes a comment or asks a question, I’ll stop and talk. Other days, I’ll keep my answer as short as possible and continue walking on my way as I respond. This is particularly true if someone asks what breed River is (Airedale Terrier) or if they tell me how pretty she is (Thanks!). If I’m already anxious and on edge or if I’m depressed, the last thing I want to do is stop and play 20 questions with a stranger. It’s nothing personal, but I’m often just trying to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible just like most of the people in there.
#4 Do not pet a service dog without explicit permission from her handler. This can distract the service dog from his or her job. Some handlers will allow others to pet their service dogs under specific circumstances. Personally, I don’t let anyone pet River if she has her vest on. That includes my closest friends and family members. River is learning that when her vest is on, she is working and should only be paying attention to me. If someone else is petting her, she is paying attention to them instead and may fail to alert me to oncoming anxiety or may not provide the deep pressure therapy I need when I get anxious or may not perform one of her other tasks. Petting a service animal can impede her ability to perform the tasks needed to ameliorate her handler’s disability. I can’t tell you how many times people have just reached down and started to pet River without even asking me. It is NEVER a good idea to pet any animal without asking their owner first. You have no idea if the animal in question is friendly or not.
#5 Do not offer the service dog food or treats without first asking their handler. This can distract the service dog from his or her job. I’m generally ok with River having a treat while she is working and wearing her vest as long as I am the person to physically hand it to her. That way, she is still paying attention to me instead of another person.
#6 Do not let your dog approach the service dog without checking with the handler first. For one thing, this can be distracting to the service animal and keep them from paying attention to their handler and performing their tasks. For another, it makes me so anxious any time someone does this. I have no way of knowing if the dog approaching River is friendly or not. Even if the owner claims their dog is friendly, they may not be telling the truth or their dog may be having an off day and River is essential to my daily functioning. If it doesn’t go well and their dog attacks River, they could be convicted of a misdemeanor or felony depending on if or how badly she’s injured. They would be responsible for veterinary care, boarding costs, replacement, and training or retraining, but none of that would be any consolation because my best friend could be injured or dead.
#7 Do not assume (or say) that the dog is miserable because they are working. Service dogs are trained to know that when their vest is on, they need to get down to business, but most of them love having a job and getting to spend almost all or all of their time with their person. In addition, their temperaments with and without their vests are often completely different. River seems fairly laid back with her vest on, but when it’s off she is immediately ready to play and cuddle and be petted.
#8 Do not draw unnecessary attention to a service dog team. If you’re loudly saying (or shouting) “Look! A doggie!” it will probably cause other people to turn and look and can be embarrassing or uncomfortable for a handler as it’s essentially pointing out to everyone in the vicinity that she or he has a disability. Instead, allow the dog and handler to go about their business like you would anyone else.
#9 Do not pretend your dog is a service dog if it isn’t. Almost 20 states have laws that make it a crime to fraudulently represent that a person has the right to be accompanied by a service animal. This may simply involve the use of a harness, vest, or orange leash that typically identifies as a dog as a service animal. In North Carolina, they say it’s unlawful to disguise a dog as a service dog and doing so is a Class 3 Misdemeanor. Even if it isn’t illegal in your state, it causes a lot of problems for legitimate service dog teams when people represent their untrained or undertrained dogs as part of a service dog team. Just because you can buy a service dog vest on the internet doesn’t mean you should.
#10 Do know that the service dog is loved. Even though they work for us and perform tasks, our service dogs are part of our families and are very loved. Service dogs get plenty of time “off duty”to play, eat, and rest, so you don’t have to “feel bad” for them for working all the time. My relationship with River is one of the most significant and important relationships in my life. I am so grateful to her for allowing me to go through life with the extra support I need to do well.
#11 Do know that, in America, service dogs are not required to wear vests and there is no certification required. I always have a vest on River when we go out anyway because it lets her know she’s working and stops people from stopping me in stores thinking that she isn’t a service dog. In other areas of the world, there is a certification required, but all of the certifications available online for America are money making scams.
#12 Do use an encounter with a service dog as a teaching opportunity for friends, family, or children. Now that you know the ins and outs of service dog etiquette, you can help others in your life to be better informed by sharing the knowledge with them when you see a service dog. You can also use the opportunity to explain to them that service dogs are dogs specially trained to help people with a disability by performing specific tasks. You can tell them about how not all disabilities are visible and explain why it’s important not to interfere with a service dog team. You can especially do this if you have small children (or adults!) with you who are engaging in any of the problematic behaviors listed above.