Dear Doctor: Thank you for your column about service dogs and the tasks they perform. I wonder whether you could go a step further and explain the best way for people to respond when they see a working dog? A colleague of mine is blind, and dealing with well-meaning people who want to pet his dog adds another level of difficulty to his daily life.
Dear Reader: For many of us who are animal lovers, it can be tempting to initiate an interaction with either a service dog or its owner when we see them together out in public. The dogs are so devoted and well-trained that it's natural to want to praise or pat them, and perhaps to learn more about them and their owner.
However, there are distinct rules of etiquette that, when observed by the rest of us, make life easier for the handler and the dog when they are out in public. Part of this is safety, and part of this is privacy. The presence of a service animal signals a special need, which does not give strangers permission to breach the anonymity we all expect and deserve when we are out in public. And it's important to remember that even when they appear to be just standing, sitting or even napping, these dogs are at work.
Never interact with a service dog. These animals are trained to ignore you so that they can stay fully focused on their handler and the tasks at hand. That means you shouldn't try to catch the dog's gaze; pet it; give it a treat or a toy; call to it; or even speak to it.
The dog and its handler are a team, mentally and physically in sync. When you disrupt the dog's concentration, you can cause it to miss a vital cue when its owner needs help. By ignoring the dog completely, you are not being rude. In fact, you are showing good manners.
Quite often the service dog will accompany someone without a visible disability. It's natural to have our curiosity piqued, to wonder what kind of help the dog provides, but the truth is that it's none of our business. Just as you wouldn't quiz the people in line with you at the pharmacy about what drugs they are getting and why, you shouldn't ask the service dog handler any personal questions. Health issues are a private matter.
If you are out with your own pets and encounter a service dog, the same rules apply. Don't let your dog approach, sniff, bark at or try to play with the working dog. Although service dog training includes ignoring other animals, allowing your pet to try to interact with a service dog makes that dog's working day more difficult.
If you absolutely must pet the service dog, always ask the handler first. Don't be surprised or insulted if the person declines, though. Just like you, these folks have errands and tasks to do and want to go about their day.
A good compromise is to simply tell the handler, "What a beautiful dog," and leave it at that.
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