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6 Things Not to Say to a Service Dog Handler

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My dog, Vinnie, is my best friend. We found each other on New Year’s Day 2014, and I instantly knew it was meant to be. He loves cuddles, destroying (but not chasing) tennis balls, refusing to go on walks, and wrestling with his sister, Rose.

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He is also the biggest reason I’m alive.

Vinnie is my service dog. He is specifically trained to perform tasks to mitigate my disabilities – Ehlers-Danlos syndrome plus seven other chronic illnesses — and to legally accompany me in public spaces where dogs are normally not allowed. He gives me independence, confidence, and
mobility that I thought I’d lost forever, and single-handedly brought joy back into my life during one of the lowest points in my life.

One thing you’ll quickly learn when you have a service dog is that you’ll get into a lot of conversations and hear a lot of comments from people you run into when you’re out and about. These are six of the worst things people say — and the ones I hear most often.

Holly training Vinnie.
Holly training Vinnie.

1.  “Puppy! Come here!”

First of all, didn’t your mother ever teach you not to call a strange dog? Seriously, I can forgive kids who do this, but it’s always grown adults. Second, my mobility dog supports me while we stand; calling him can make me fall and even send me to the emergency room. Unless you want to pay my ambulance bill, I’d suggest not making smoochy noises at Vinnie.

2.  “What’s wrong with you?”

I’m willing to share some information about Vinnie’s tasks if someone inquires politely, but I’m not willing to share my private medical history with someone who approaches me like this.

3.  “My aunt’s second cousin has a friend whose sister’s mother-in-law has a medical condition and my mother told her that she needs to get one of those dogs and I started looking around at different places to get one but her brother is afraid of poodles and…”

I’m really just trying to go grocery shopping.

4.  “Can I pet him?”

I’m glad you asked instead of just doing it, but no. If I seem annoyed, it’s probably because his vest says “don’t pet me” but you’re the tenth person to ask me this today.

Vinnie's vest with a patch reading "You Shall Not Pet."
Vinnie’s vest with a patch reading “You Shall Not Pet.”

5. “Where can I get one of those vests for my dog?”

People often think the vest makes the service dog, but they don’t see the blood, sweat, tears, and years that go into training a dog for public access. Buying a vest for your dog and taking them into stores is not only illegal, but can negatively impact real service dog teams: businesses who see poorly behaved “impersonators” sometimes assume that the next legitimate team who comes in is also fake, and may treat them poorly or even try to deny them access.

6.  “You’re so noble — thank you for training a dog for blind people!”

Guide dogs aren’t the only type of service dog; in fact, anyone with a disability has the potential to benefit from a service dog. And not all disabilities are visible.

I know you mean well. But please remember that I get stopped every time I leave the house by many people who mean well. Just respect our work, our privacy, and our space — and we’ll do the same for you.

Photos by contributor.

Originally published: August 23, 2017
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