Service Dog Etiquette in Public
by Laurie Volpe
Here on the Treasure Coast, we have working Service Dog teams out and about in our community with estimates of more than 500,000 teams in the United States. Along with that, comes much confusion on what a Service Dog does, why they are permitted out in public, and what their function and purpose is. And most importantly, how can we support them by giving them their privacy. As caring dog lovers ourselves, it is extremely difficult not to comment, want to touch, or speak to the handler about their highly trained service dog. In this blog, we will talk about the appropriate reactions and interactions, as well as clear up some myths about Service Dogs.
A Service Dog team is comprised of one disabled person and one service dog which has been task trained to mitigate the individuals disability and enable them to better or fully participate in life. Service Dogs, also referred to as Assistance Dogs is a broad category. Disabilities are defined by The Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA) as one who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. There are many types of Service Dogs who perform many jobs. These include Guide Dogs who assist the sight impaired, Hearing Dogs who assist hearing impaired, Seizure Dogs assist people with seizure disorders, Diabetic Alert Dogs, Gluten Detection dogs, Mobility dogs for people in wheelchairs, Psychological Support service dogs for children with Autism, or someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are all highly trained working dogs who perform specific tasks; for example: opening/closing doors for someone in a wheelchair, picking up dropped items, alerting someone to a smoke detector alarming, or alerting to an impending potentially life threatening medical emergency. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 gives service dog/handler teams the right to enter places where dogs are not usually permitted such as restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, and movie theatres so that they can do these very important jobs!
Service Dogs are not to be confused with Therapy Dog teams who are comprised of an owner of a pet dog who wishes to take their well trained pet for structured visits at nursing homes, reading programs at libraries, Hospitals, and many other places where their pets can provide comfort happiness to other people.
Everyone, whether able bodied or disabled, is entitled to their privacy when out in public and it is important to remember many disabilities may not be obvious! It is acceptable to admire a service dog team from afar as long as we are not interrupting or distracting the dog from its duties and responsibilities. Remember they are ALWAYS working when out in public! This is where all of us are naturally more vulnerable. It might seem innocent enough to stare or watch a service dog working in the grocery store checkout line- but even as little as a stranger’s eye contact can turn the dog’s attention away from their person and in turn may miss something happening to their owner when they are in need of help! It should go without saying to never ask someone “What does the dog do?” as this is like saying “So what is wrong with you??!!” Although no harm may be intended, this is a big no no. One should never ask what the dog’s name is because we may accidently say it, which could call the dog away from their owner!! Service dogs, in many cases, have up to 18 months of training and go through a litany of medical exams and temperament testing prior to being placed with their person. The owners have also worked hard at preparing and training for their dog, and in many cases years of fund raising. Even after years of rigorous training and preparation, at the end of the day, the dog is still a dog, and can become distracted. So when you see a service dog working in public, remember, they are working so give them the space and refrain from interacting with the dog or the handler. They deserve their privacy and are most likely concentrating on the tasks at hand.
And lastly, let’s address “The Fakers” out in public. I am referring to people who take their personal pets out in public and pass them off as a Service Dog. Many wish they could take their pets wherever they go, but it is important to understand why this should not be done. The ADA laws are self-regulated which means that we are ALL on the honor system when it comes to abiding by this Federal law. We would never intentionally take something away from a disabled person would we? Well…that is exactly what is happening when people take their pets into stores in shopping carts because they saw someone else doing it. If your dog acts inappropriately or misbehaves, customers and business owners become uneasy. Business owners are trying their best to not invade a disabled person’s privacy by asking them why they are using a service dog. Unfortunate, many people nationwide are taking advantage of this situation by buying vests and fake certifications on the internet, and passing them off as service dogs. It is not cute to cruise the coffee shop with your puppy in your purse if they begin barking or growling at a customer or employee. This severely jeopardized the rights of disabled people because business owners are now weary when a service dog enters their store. And they may refuse access to a disabled person and their service dog because they were burned in the past by someone bringing in their pet dog. I am a certified Service Dog Trainer, and under state law have the same rights out in public as a disabled person because I am training and preparing the dog to safely and reliably be out in public for their future working career. I have encountered dogs in shopping carts growling and attempting to jump out of the cart when they see my service dog approaching. This may cause the service dog to become fearful of other dogs or worse will not want to work out in public again because of this encounter with a misbehaved or threatening pet. It is very difficult to properly identify an authentic service dog vs a faker because so many disabilities are invisible and there is no universal certification. But it is however obvious when a dog is misbehaving or acting inappropriately out in public.
So what can we do to protect a disabled persons civil rights to use a service dog? We can all educate! We can all discourage a friend from calling their pet a service dog to avoid the hotel pet fee, or airplane charge. We can discourage the use of a handicap sticker/ plaque on our car dashboard if it belongs to someone else. We can explain to our friends and family why taking our pets out to the hardware store could actually be infringing upon the civil rights for someone living with a disability. We can act by telling our children not to touch, pet, feed or ask about a service dog they come in contact with. And lastly, we can treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve by allowing them their space and their privacy.
Written by Laurie Volpe, owner of Stuart Pet Pals, LLC. and certified Medical Alert Service Dog Trainer of Canine Specialty Training, LLC.