The Imperfect Service Dog, Part II
Thank you all for your comments in response to the Imperfect Service Dog post–and for your donations to Paws with a Cause, those of you who made them!
- You’re attending an event. You see a service dog of awesome cuteness. YOU CAN’T STAND THE CUTENESS! You miss your dog who is not at the event. Because this is a service dog, you feel safe with it. Also, you used to/do have a dog of that breed. Your first impulse is to go “AWWW–!” and you feel an inexorable tug to go pet the dog. What do you do? (Or if you’re William Shatner, what DO you DO?)
- You see someone with a service dog who appears to be functionally intact. You wonder what on earth they need this dog for. Are they just gaming the system to feel special? Maybe they’re taking advantage! You are wildly curious! Your mouth opens! What do you say?
- You’re making casual conversation with someone who happens to have a service dog. The dog is behaving appropriately, but you’re surprised to see this breed with a service vest on. You know something about [family dogs/breeds/once taught your dog to sit], and you know this breed has a reputation for its cheerful resistance to training. You open your mouth and out come the words–
So here goes!
1. Generally speaking, I leave the dog alone. However, if I was to feel utterly compelled to pet, I might ask, “May I say hello to your dog, or is s/he working?” And then–the most critical part–I would wait for an answer.
As a person with a service dog, this approach would work for me as long as it didn’t interrupt whatever personal business I was handling at the time. Some folks may be fussier, especially if they’ve dealt with one too many intrusions on their day. I admit, I have been astonished–speechless, at times–at how many people don’t ask–or if they do ask, they don’t wait for an answer. Or if they do get an affirmative, they then swoop hastily upon the dog in a fashion guaranteed to alarm all but the stodgiest canine.
For all of these reasons, even if Dart is not working at the time, I no longer allow petting unless I have specifically given him an off-switch of picking him up. From there, visitors can’t swoop down on him, and I have complete control over how he’s being handled–I can always turn away or gently put my hand between him and a face that’s too close. Not because I fear for the face, but because hello! RUDE! He doesn’t deserve to deal with it.
2. Although it’s perfectly possible to query appropriately about a service dog’s duties, it may not be as simple as you think. Not everyone wants to talk about their personal health–and even if they’re fine with that, not every moment is a good one for them to do it. Even something like “she’s a seizure alert dog” offers a world of personal information.
Also, I’ve found that answering the question often leads to more questions. My answer is, “He provides me with neurological grounding exercises.” To which most people say, “What does that mean?” And suddenly it’s a whole conversation about my health. Do Not Always Want.
However you decide to handle it, being sensitive to the handler’s response is paramount. Be curious, not nosy. And whatever you do, however badly you want to know, there is never any excuse for asking twice if the handler demurs the first time. Especially if the first response is a very clear, “This isn’t a good time for me to talk about that.”
3. As long as you’re admiring the dog, you’re good. It does not count as admiring the dog if you diss his breed in the process. “I’ve never seen a [insert breed] service dog,” isn’t a bad way to do it. “Wow, a [insert breed]–awesome!” will probably also get a smile. “I can’t believe you have a Beagle service dog–that’s such a dumb breed!” might get you a pasted-on smile, but don’t mistake it for the real thing.
(Note that I’ve only had Dart in his active service dog role for a short time, and yet I’ve experienced all the “don’ts” I just mentioned. I can understand why those with extensive experience might get a little short in their responses, although I hope I never do. But just maybe, given the great discussion here, we’re a start of the awareness brigade! Let’s make it contagious…)
Meanwhile, over on the contest side of things…I did my infamous “blind stab at the screen” and Melissa won the WordPlay contest! Those of you who donated to Paws with a Cause should keep an eye on the Event Web Page to see who wins the grand prizes!