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11 Things Service Dog Handlers Want You to Know

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While all service dog handlers operate with their dog and interact with the public differently, we all have some things we would like people to know. Here are 11 things I and many other service dog handlers wish people understood.

1) All breeds of dogs can be service dogs. Obviously there are some breed restrictions with certain jobs – only large dogs can safely do mobility work, for example – but any breed of dog can be a service dog. Any dog can be taught to be a psychiatric SD; any dog can be trained to detect allergens; any dog can be trained to be a diabetic alert dog. Purebreds can be SDs, mutts can be SDs, tiny Chihuahuas can be SDs and big Rottweilers can be SDs.

2) Not all service dogs are guide dogs. This is a common misconception, but ignorance of this fact can make public access challenging when managers and employees are not up-to-date on their information. In addition to guide dogs, there are mobility assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs, diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, and many more. All are service dogs and all are given the same amount of public access as guide dogs.

3) Service dogs are still dogs. Service dogs go through extensive training to meet public access and task trained standards. That does not mean they are robots. Sometimes our dogs will have off days – maybe they’ve been working too long, maybe the heat is getting to them, maybe they are sick. SDs are generally incredibly polite and obedient, but they are still living beings and can feel frisky, can feel hunger, and can have accidents when sick or severely startled. Please don’t think we are faking if you witness a single instance of a SD not behaving as you believe it should.

4) Some things you might think are disobedience are actually trained alerts. A service dog who is jumping up to their handler, pulling their handler towards an exit, pawing at their handler, whining or giving a single bark in a controlled manner are most likely performing any number of trained tasks and alerts. For example, when I am triggered and have a flashback, my SD will jump up and hit her front paws on my chest until I give her the release word, which means I’m back in reality. I’ve had security called on the suspicion of me having a fake service dog.

5) Please do not distract our service dogs. This includes petting them without our permission, making kissy noises towards them, patting your legs and trying to get them to come to you, trying to feed them, allowing your dog to run freely towards a SD, allowing your children to run freely towards a SD. Please just ignore them unless invited or told otherwise – it makes our lives easier and it makes their jobs easier.

6) Please understand if we can’t stop to chat. We are out shopping just like everyone else and may not have time to answer questions or talk about our dogs.

7) Please monitor your kids. Don’t allow your children to call/talk to, grab, or pet a SD without our consent. Teach your children good service dog etiquette.

8) Don’t make us defend our service dogs. Not all disabilities are visible or obvious. Please do not say anything like “You don’t look like you need a service dog.” There is no “disabled” look. You often can’t tell just from looking at someone.

9) Don’t talk about us behind our backs. Please don’t speculate about what is “wrong with us” – people often aren’t as quiet as they think they are, and it can be extremely dehumanizing to hear someone play a guessing game with our disabilities. You cannot tell by looking at us, you cannot tell by our dog breed, you cannot tell by the vest our dog is wearing, so please – just stop.

10) Don’t tell us we are “lucky.” When people tell us how “lucky we are” to be able to bring out service dogs everywhere, they fail to take into account why we have our service dog. When people tell us we are lucky to have a service dog, they are basically saying we are lucky we are disabled. While disability is nothing to be ashamed of and can be a proud part of an individual’s identity, to have a random person saying something like this can be very off-putting. We are lucky to have a disability that can be helped by a SD, we are lucky we can afford our SD, but we are not lucky to need a service dog.

11) We aren’t your inspiration. This is a problem a lot of disabled people face. We are not here to serve as inspiration for you, to show you how good your life is. We are not a sign from God to stop complaining about the struggles of your life. Everyone has things to overcome and work with, and everyone does it with the best tools available to them. For service dog handlers, that tool is just visible to others. Please do not walk up to us while grocery shopping and tell us how inspirational we are; it can feel very infantilizing. After all, we are doing the same exact thing you are!

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: February 6, 2017
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