Dog Lovers, please read

“You’ll have to excuse me; I’m a dog lover…”

I hate that sentence. I have learned that what follows is going to be problematic. This “dog lover” will invariably start petting Gizmo while commenting that the WORKING DOG—DO NOT PET sign on his vest doesn’t apply to dog lovers, will want to tell me about the dog he has or once had, will ask a thousand questions about Gizmo and his training, will give Gizmo commands and then tell me what a dumb dog he is when he ignores them, or some equally shocking and surprising behavior. I even had a “dog lover” follow me around a store showing me pictures of his dog. Waitresses serving food stop to pet him or offer him food off a plate they are clearing away. Store clerks ignore me to talk to him when I’m the one with the money to buy something. And, almost every “dog lover” tells me how lucky I am that I get to take my pet everywhere.

Although I believe folks think they are being kind and sharing their love for animals with me, they don’t realize what it’s like to partner with a service dog. Allow me to share the not-so-great side of having a service dog around “dog lovers.”

For starters, please note that service dogs are not pets. I do not get to take my pet with me everywhere. I have another dog and bird at home that are my pets. Service dogs are specially trained to do a job, and are legally differentiated from pets. Gizmo’s job is to alert me before I have a neurological event so I can call for help and get to safety, to help me balance, to help me up when I fall, to find help or find me if I get disoriented or pass out, to fetch my phone or medicine, to pick up things I drop, and to guide me if I am blinded or disoriented. I may leave home feeling fine, but it only takes a second for my day to go dangerously wrong.

Why shouldn’t people pet or talk to him? When Gizmo is focused on a “dog lover” he isn’t focused on me. While a “dog lover” thinks it’s cute to encourage Gizmo to sniff his shoes or lick his hand because Gizmo obviously loves him or smells his dog, Gizmo might miss a smell that signals a change in my body chemistry or a micro-expression that tells him I am about to have a problem. While a “dog lover” is petting him and cooing baby-talk to him, Gizmo might not notice that I have lost my balance and isn’t able to help me regain it before I fall. When Gizmo is leading my husband or friend to find me because I have fallen or passed out, and a “dog lover” stops them to talk about the dog he once had, emergency help is delayed.

While Gizmo’s service allows me to go and do by myself, thanks to “dog lovers” everything takes twice as long. I can’t run in and out of a grocery store without someone wanting to know how he was trained to look at me instead of the meat counter. Or some young mother wants to teach her children about service dogs and delays me thirty minutes. Or the pharmacy technician holds my prescription while telling me how smart his dog is, and wouldn’t a service dog be just the thing for his elderly aunt. One lady at Costco actually stopped me seven (yes SEVEN) different times to talk to Gizmo or tell me something else she forgot to mention about her childhood dog.

Much of Gizmo’s ongoing training must be done in public so we know he will do it in an emergency. Like anyone learning new skills, Gizmo makes mistakes and needs correction. Even if a “dog lover” thinks he’s doing something brilliant, it may not be what he was told to do or supposed to do at that moment. It confuses him when I am correcting him or giving him the sorry-try-again sign and a perfect stranger comes up excitedly telling him what a good dog he is. How can anyone besides me and Gizmo’s trainer know what a good dog he is or isn’t? Comments like that actually slow down his training because it gives him mixed signals.

If you are a sincere dog lover and want to show appreciation for their service and training in a helpful manner, here are some things to remember:

  • Do not do anything to interrupt the service dog while it’s working. And please, assume he is working unless told otherwise. Even when Gizmo looks dead asleep, he is totally tuned in to me and will alert in a heartbeat if something about me changes.
  • Speak to the person first. Do not aim any noise towards the dog.
  • Do not touch the service dog or person without asking for, and receiving, permission.
  • Do not offer food to the service dog. Many dogs have food allergies, and their treats are tied to training.
  • Do not ask personal questions about the person’s disability, or intrude on his privacy.
  • Do not be offended if the person does not want, or is not able, to talk with you.
  • A “nice dog,” “beautiful lab,” or “what a well-trained animal” spoken in our general direction, without expectation of a response, is always appreciated.
  • If you want to talk about your dog, or want to know more about service dogs in general, join an online community of dog lovers. Someone is always willing to talk about dogs when they have the time.

I love talking about Gizmo and any other animal, but not when I am rushing to accomplish something, or focusing on walking without falling and hurting myself. Please be sensitive to the needs of those with service dogs. There is a reason why these canine helpers are needed 24/7.

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8 thoughts on “Dog Lovers, please read

  1. gallimaufree says:

    I completely empathize with you – I have a signal dog who also happens to be small, cute, and fluffy. We’ve been partnered 8 years, and it truly does take 2 – 3 times as long to do anything. I had to renew my car tags today – every. single. person. in the tag agency just had to pet my partner and talk to him, and because their faces were looking down at him, I couldn’t “hear” what they were saying. Even after they knew he was a service dog, they kept petting and cooing. A 10 minute task took over half an hour.

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    • Kathryn McClatchy says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! I truly think each “dog lover” thinks he/she is the only one stopping to chat and pet our partners, but it happens over and over. I am hoping this post will be shared and more people will realize what a problem this is. I am curious how other SD partners deal with “dog lovers.” I want to educate and encourage them, but some days I really fight being brusque or short tempered. And of course in my situation it’s worse on days I really don’t feel well. If I have a migraine and I’m trying not to throw up, I can’t be happy and sociable.

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      • gallimaufree says:

        It IS hard. There are days when I’m pressed for time and being stopped by even 2 or 3 people is a serious imposition. Sometimes, I bring a “bodyguard/PR person” with me who will chat with the other people while I get my work done (I am blessed with many friends who love talking about my partner), When I can’t bring a “bodyguard” with me, I wear a button that says, “Deaf – Talk to the face, not the dog”.

        It helps, too, that my partner is small, so small that he kept getting kicked and spent too much time dodging feet instead of doing his job that his trainer suggested carrying him in a pouch, then we spent a year designing the perfect pouch that allowed him to do his job and was comfortable for me to wear. When he’s in his pouch, he’s snugged up against my chest so all I have to do to prevent people from messing with him is to turn away.

        When he’s on a leash, he’s been trained to sit between my legs when I stop, which means people have to get down between my legs to pet him and most people won’t do that. I also carry a cane or long umbrella and when I pause, he sits close to me and I place the cane or umbrella as a barrier between him and everyone else. It slows people down, and many remember that they aren’t supposed to interfere with a service team.

        I’ve also found that clothing and accessories play a big part in having people keep their distance. “Official” looking collar, harness, vest that cover the areas most people want to pet prevents them from petting, and teaching my partner to look away from them to me, and to move closer to me when people approach us also reduces interferance. One of the accessories I carry is a card that I can give away that details what they should do when they encounter a SD team.

        My card says on one side: “I’m sorry, I’m very busy right now and can’t talk to you. This card should answer most of your questions.” The other side says, “My partner assists me in hearing sounds. We’ve been partnered__ years. You can help him by *admiring him from a distance, *allowing him to do his job, *not making distracting sounds at him. Thank you for letting us live as normal a life as we can.”

        We didn’t sign on to be SD ambassadors when we became disabled and needed the help of a dog to get through our daily tasks. I spend a lot of time – too much time – protecting my SD from “dog lovers” who are supremely selfish.

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        • Kathryn McClatchy says:

          I never really thought about the potential dangers for a small SD. I can definitely see your problem. I do corporate training regarding SD and related ADA guidelines. I will add that into my spiel about small breed SDs.

          I also love your card that you hand out. I will be creating something similar. What a brilliant idea!

          Thanks so much for sharing your ideas and experiences.

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  2. Julia says:

    I am in the process of getting a service dog and this was one of the “not so nice” things I had considered before I made my decision. While I was being interviewed the director mentioned this same thing. I know people mean well but I’ll have to practice my (glancing at watch) “Oh I’m sorry but I’m going to be late!” 🙂

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    • Kathryn McClatchy says:

      Julia, good luck on finding your perfect SD partner! Overall, Gizmo has changed my life for the better, and I highly recommend partnering with a SD if your situation warrants it. I would suggest you start training your friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances now about basic service dog etiquette. The agency I worked with created brochures that I could hand out. The children’s minister at our church was very helpful and made sure all the kids knew that Gizmo’s vest meant he was working and it was not play-time. I have found that if you can teach the children, they will inform their parents..

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  3. Sit, Stay, & Blog says:

    I become more and more thankful each time I come across articles such as this that aim to educate readers about service dog etiquette and the dangers of disrespecting working dogs and their handlers. I am a service dog raiser/trainer and know all too well about the challenges that one must unfortunately endure upon having a service dog in public. I am saddened that you continue to experience this and truly hope that, through the power of education, we can work to raise awareness about not distracting working dogs and their handlers, not probing for information about an individual’s disability, not feeding a working dog, and the like. You also touched upon something I am most passionate about education people on….Talk to the human first! It is amazing how many people will approach your dog before you’re even aware that they are nearby. Again, education is key, and you’re doing quite a wonderful job in achieving that through your blog!
    I recently followed your page and am so excited for future posts! Best of luck in your writing!

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