Kal finished his Service Dog Training at three years old and is working regularly now. When he's not working, he spends his time chasing balls. This journal shares stores and information about his life and his search for The Ultimate Stick. (Scroll down to see past stories and posts.)
Everyone knows you aren't suppose to talk to a Service Dog, but not everyone understands why. Here's a basic primer on Service Dog Etiquette, and some of there reasons behind it all.
Most of us are aware that it is bad manners to talk to a Service Dog. But not everyone understands why.
I mean, for those of us who love dogs, this is a tough rule to follow. There is nothing cooler than a Service Dog, trained and working as a partner to give its person safety, freedom and a better life. The idea of your dog working to its full potential, side by side with you, for a real, meaningful purpose - its exciting! We want to meet that dog! We want to learn about her, talk about her, know her. We want to gush over her. Why can't we?
Many assume this rule comes from a need to respect the handler’s privacy, and, certainly, this is something we should to be sensitive to. How would you feel if strangers came up to you everywhere you went and started asking personal questions about your health? Some of us wouldn't mind, but some people certainly would. Especially if it happened every time you left the house. If nothing else, you'd start to get a little annoyed at the obstacle all that personal attention proved to getting your errands done quickly after a long day. And, especially if your disability reduces your energy - it can be exhausting to have to hold conversations with a stranger every five minutes. So, respect for the disabled person's privacy is certain something you want to be sensitive to. But its not the reason for the rule.
After all, some of us would be happy to talk to you. We are happy for the chance to spread the word about Service Dogs, or expand your understanding of our particular illness. Some of us are so proud of our dogs we would like nothing more than to tell everyone we meet all about them. But the rule about not interacting with a Service Dog is not really about privacy. Its not about the handler at all. Its about making life better for the dog.
A well trained Service Dog makes his job look easy, natural. But it's not. It takes concentration and focus for a dog to do even the most basic of Service Tasks - ignoring the other people and animals around him when he works. For a gregarious, happy, people-loving dog, this is extremely hard to do hour after hour in all different situations. Of course the dog wants to run up to you and greet you, wag her tail at you and bound around your feet. Of course the dog wants to love on you and become your best friend. If she were any normal dog, she'd be doing this. But she isn't. She has a job to do and its the most important job in the world. And for that job, she has to give up some of the things a dog most loves. She has to give up some of the joy and happiness a dog gets from being carefree and loving on everyone she meets. And that is always hard for her to do.
Being a Service Dog is very hard work. It takes extensive, intensive training for a dog to learn the needed skills, and it takes continuous concentration and focus for a dog to practice these skills when working.
Have you ever taken a dog through obedience training? How hard is it to get a young, healthy dog to walk calmly, in exactly the correct Heal position, for 10 minutes at a time, without needing to be reminded or repositioned? How about for hours at a time? Without sniffing people around him or acknowledging other dogs walking past? And how much harder would it be for your dog to succeed at this if someone was talking to it, calling it, or trying to get its attention?
And then there is the need for focus on specific tasks. A Service Dog may be needed to provide mobility support - to let his handler lean on him or brace against him. He may have been trained to provide a solid point of balance if the handler becomes unsteady, or to help the handler sink safely to the ground if she falls. That dog has to be walking in the correct position at all times to provide this support. He can’t lag behind or pull ahead. And he may need to be focused enough to pick up the subtle cues in his handler's body language so that he can anticipate if the handler becomes unsteady or starts to fall. He will need to realize a fall is coming in a split second in order to have time to brace himself under the handler so that he can help to lower her safely to the ground. A dog can't get distracted and still do this job.
A Service Dog might also be acting as a Seizure or a Diabetic Alert dog. This dog has to be able to pick up instantly on subtle changes in her person's physiology which most dogs aren't even capable of noticing. To do this, she has to be focused on her person at all times. A distracted dog might miss the changes she has to alert against.
A Service Dog doesn’t have the luxury a pet dog has of making friends with everyone she meets. She makes this sacrifice and, hopefully, lives an even richer life because of it. But it isn't an easier life. Service Dogs don't live as long as your average, care-free pet. They have more health problems, and their bodies get worn down more quickly. I think its worth it to them. A dog with a true, working dog's heart, needs a purpose to be truly fulfilled, and there is no greater purpose than that of a Service Dog. But it is a challenging life and a challenging job. Interactions from strangers while she’s working make this ten times harder still.
The prohibition against talking to a Service Dog exists for the good of the dog. It actually isn't about the handler at all. You don’t talk to a working service dog. (And to a dog, intent stares or eye contact are just as distracting as calling the dog's name.) Paying attention to her puts her in a position in which all her hard won training is pulling against her natural instinct to show love and welcome to everyone she meets. It is extremely stressful and she doesn't deserve that.
But this rule applies to the dog - not the handler. There is no reason you shouldn't talk to or interact with the handler of a fully trained Service Dog. Certainly, not everyone welcomes strangers striking up conversations out of no-where, and not everyone wants attention drawn to the most difficult aspects of their lives by someone they don't even know. So be sensitive and be respectful. But don't feel you need to ignore the PERSON with the Service Dog. Smile at them, make eye contact and strike up a conversation, if they seem open to it. No reason you shouldn't talk to them ABOUT the dog, or anything else for that matter. Its only the dog you need to ignore. The exception to this is if the dog is In Training.
You might not know that there are two different categories of Service Dogs: Fully trained Service Dogs and Service Dogs In Training. Both have the same legal access to anywhere their people need to go. Its easy to tell them apart. A fully trained Service Dog does not have to wear a Service Dog vest or any kind of identification, though most do. However, a Service Dog in Training is required by law to be wearing a vest with at least one patch which proclaims him as a Service Dog In Training. If you don't see the In Training patch somewhere on the dog, then assume it is a fully trained Service Dog.
Why does it matter? A Service Dog In Training is not just working as its handler goes about his life. The handler is actually engaged in extensive, difficult work of his own as he helps his dog learn to navigate the world in this new way. This takes as much focus from the handler as it does from the dog, and, in this case, distractions are not welcome. It would be like someone trying to hold a conversation with you while you are in the middle of a new obedience lesson with your dog - only more so, since missing any important reactions at this stage could mean the dog fails to become a successful Service Dog. Even if, to you, it just looks like the person is taking a relaxing walk, or browsing haphazardly through a store, the handler needs all his attention and focus for the training going on.
So, if you see a working Service Dog out and about in the world, look first at its vest and notice if there are any In Training patches visible. If so, leave them both alone - they're in the middle of a training session and distractions wont help. If not, then treat the person just as you would treat any person - talk or don't talk, smile or don't smile. And in either case, make sure you completely ignore the dog.