I want to start out with Service Dog Etiquette. In the 3 and a half weeks we have had Casper we have been really lucky with the people we have met. Very few people overstepped boundaries and even fewer were downright rude. Most people are very kind and try not to impose. I have realized, though, that a lot of people just don’t know how to act around service dogs, or for that matter other people’s pets when out in public. So I am going to attempt to share what we have learned. Keep in mind that a lot of this is based on our own experiences and preferences, but I have also researched what the majority of service dog owners prefer as well so I will cover all bases.
Now, let me also say, that we LOVE dogs. Before we had Casper we called ourselves “professional dog stalkers.” We went out of our way to go to places where people took their dogs so that we could pet them. That said, even in those cases we tried our best to use our top dog manners. My youngest was in charge of catching up to the owners and politely asking to pet the animal. This kept them stalled until the rest of us caught up. And I told her that if they say no that it is ok and not to be upset. That is the most important rule of approaching ANY dog owner, service dog or pet: ASK BEFORE PETTING.
Of course with a service dog it gets a little trickier so let start at the beginning.
You see a person with a service animal and you are just dying to go pet that adorable pooch. What do you do? Well first you need to be observant. Is that person actively walking with the dog, or if in a wheelchair actively using that dog for some kind of assistance. If you can tell without a doubt that the dog and owner are working then please do not even ask to pet. Stopping them at that point could be enough distraction for the dog, or make the person late for something. If you can’t resist getting close, then by all means walk by and offer a nice, “Beautiful dog!” And then move on.
But what if they are sitting on a bench or having dinner at the table next to you? Well, then you need to observe some more. Look at the vest. Most dogs have patches. Some say “Ask to Pet” and others say “Do not Pet.” If it says “Do not pet” then the best rule of thumb is not to ask. EXCEPT, I will tell you a little secret… some people will let you pet anyway. We are those people. If someone comes up while we are relaxing and the dog is not actively helping Dan and they are polite and ask then we usually say ok. The patch is to deter to boneheads who don’t want to ask first and we feel “Ask to Pet” is practically an invitation to those people. Officially, however, don’t ask unless you are a brave person who takes rejection well.
And what if the person says no? Then say, “Ok. Thank you. Beautiful dog,” and move on. They have every right to do so and no one should take offense. Sometimes when a dog seems at rest it could be on attention to help at any moment. Maybe the dog, like ours, is a pup and needs the extra focus. You just never know. And please remember, if a person answers rudely, don’t take it personally. For all you know someone walked up 5 minutes ago and just started playing with the dog without asking and now they are a little put out. Don’t let it worry you.
So, they say you can pet, now what? Most people know that you let a dog sniff your hand before you pet it. Did you know that it is best to pet under the chin rather than the top of the head? And, please avoid eye contact with the dog. If you are at the next table and itching to pet that beautiful beast don’t stare at it and try to make eye contact and mime to it that you love his widdle puppy face. That alone is enough to get the dog excited and out of focus.
Want more tips? If someone is walking by with a dog, please try to step aside if you can. A person using a dog to walk cannot walk in front of or behind it. They usually have enough of their own mobility problems without having to also navigate around you because you feel put out by having to step over half a foot or because you are in shock that there is a dog in Target. Going through a door? Let them in before you go out, please. Backing a dog up is possible, but it's a lot easier for you to back up yourself.
Have the kids with you? What kid doesn’t love a dog! When you see us coming please prepare your kids. First of all, you should always teach your kids to ask to pet a dog, any dog. You also need to teach them what a service animal is and how to spot them. Almost all wear some kind of vest. Tell them that the dog has a job and is concentrating hard so you should not distract it. This means no calling out to the dog. No touching the dog. And also, when walking by, please try to keep the kids from running or being rowdy. Just for those few seconds, try to keep them calm. (As parents we know how impossible this can be, so I say “try.”) Children are a big distraction to most dogs. They just love them.
Did you know we don’t give out our dog’s name? You all know our dog is Casper, but if you ever see us on the street, please don’t call it out. We don’t want him to think he is supposed to be listening to our waitress talk to him instead of his Daddy. So we keep a list and call him Earl or Steve. Whatever we decide to use that day. So if you meet a service dog, don’t ask his name. It is easier for us that way.
If you are in a store or restaurant and are given the chance to meet the dog and/or it’s people, try not to take up too much of their time. We love meeting new people and are always happy that people think Casper is so great. Still, though, it can take up a lot of our time. A trip to the grocery store now takes about 15-20 minutes longer than it used to, and that is without someone stopping us to chat about the dog. We once went out to breakfast and an older couple want to chat so long that our pancakes were cold by the time they were done. They had finished breakfast and were leaving; we had just gotten our food. Remember that for every 5 minutes your chat about our dog, there are 10 more people that day who will want to do the same. We love you all, but try not to intrude when people are eating or doing typical errands that you usually want to do in a hurry.
Here is a BIG one. Please don’t ask someone why they need a dog. We don’t really mind that personally, but a lot of people don’t want to share the details of their disability. And along those same lines, don’t question whether one is necessary for a person to have. We guarantee that if a person is approved to receive a service dog they actually DO need it even if they don’t “look” disabled to you.
DO NOT FEED SOMEONE ELSE’S DOG!!!! No matter where you are or who you are, please do not do this. Food is a huge distraction. Also, some dogs, like Casper are on a special diet. He does NOT get people food because we don’t want him to learn to beg while we are at restaurants because we go out a lot. He also is on a grain free diet because it helps prevent bloat and yeast infections. Once at SDP someone started tossing him pieces of hamburger. We did not even know this someone. And then she had the nerve to say her dog was a better catch than him, like it was some shortcoming. I can honestly say that Dan was not thrilled and will steer clear of this person in the future.
And PLEASE do not bring your pet out to the store with you. That is as distracting as it gets. In fact, I will do a whole post on that one another time.