“How does your family prefer that the public relate to you and the dogs when you are out in public? Should we ignore the dogs since they are working? Is it okay to watch them work without making anyone feel uncomfortable? Is it okay to ask questions if we feel that there is an opportunity without disrupting the current situation? I have seen many different types of service dogs in public, but I have always kept my distance and looked from afar. In some instances, I’ve wanted to ask a question, but felt like it might be an intrusion.”
What a great question Julia, that doesn’t really have a “one size fits all” answer. And thank you for asking. There are a lot of variables to this. Lets start off very simply. Please don’t ever try to pet the dog. And especially not if a child is handling the dog. These dogs must be focused on their handlers, and getting all of their signals, commands, and rewards from their handler. If a dog is getting attention from stranger, it may start to seek attention from strangers, and focus on that, not on the handler. Often times, that very attention can be used as a reward for a job well done, so if the dog is getting it for free, then there is no reason to work for it. Now please, trust me when I tell you that my dogs are VERY well loved, and get lots of attention, but that is strictly reserved for immediate families. However, if you happen to be a friend of ours, and we are out together, and you really want to pet him, all I ask is that you wait until he alerts and we verify. Then after we treat the BS and reward the dog, you can give him some loving too. That’s how we work it with friends and family. We just ask to wait until he gets an alert. That generally doesn’t take very long 😉
When we are out in public, there is a little freak show aspect to it. People pointing and staring, talking and such. You get used to it. It’s not everyday you see a dog on a boat at Smallworld in Disneyland, so some of that comes with the territory. I certainly don’t mind people asking questions. I love talking about the dogs, educating, discussing diabetes and such. But please keep in mind that often times, there are 2 kids in tow, so I may be a little distracted, as I keep an eye on them. And sometimes we are in a hurry. Just trying to grab something from the store and get home. Or we are in the middle of dealing with a blood sugar event. Please don’t take it personally if we are “preoccupied”.
We have an invisible disease. Which means that when we are out in public, a lot of people assume our dogs are in training, and not really working. And people assume that if they are in training and not actually working, it is okay to pet them. I don’t get that at all. What makes them think that if these were puppies, that petting wouldn’t interfere with something? And I don’t believe for a second that these same people would try and pet a guide dog that was leading his vision impaired handler through a store. So what gives? If people lead with their hand first, I am often very abrupt. No petting! This dog is working! And people get startled. Even though it is emblazoned across their backs. Children are much better at the no touching then adults are. Always ask first.
And can we all agree that it is really obnoxious to kneel down across the room, talk like a baby inhaling helium, tapping our legs and saying “come here sweetie”? The dog is working. And much like picking your nose in the car, we can see you. 😉
When the dogs are being handled by a child, please don’t approach. Seek out the adult (we are never far behind). The child needs to keep their full attention on the task at hand. A distraction can mean a dog grabbing someones dinner off a table, an alert that gets missed, or any number of things that could possibly go wrong. We let Stella do a lot of dog handling. She handles all the dogs that come through here. She is a pro, and she will snap at someone faster about not touching than I will. But not all kids are as seasoned, and not all dogs are as obedient as ours. Plus, I have more of an issue of strangers talking to my child than trying to pet the dog.
Some dogs have a patch that says “ask to touch”. Please feel free to ask. And some dogs are “therapy” dogs, and often times, their sole mission in life is to let you pet them. So each dog, type of dog, type of service they dog provides, is a little bit different. As long as you start off every encounter with asking first, you should be fine. But know that often times, the answer will be “no, I’m sorry, the dog is working”.