You’ve probably heard the phrase “a dog is man’s best friend.” Well, my dog is not only my best friend, but a vital part of my life as a person with disabilities. Marcy is an assistance dog—she is specially trained to perform tasks which mitigate my disabilities. She makes it possible for me to live and work independently, as so many assistance dogs do for thousands of people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses across the country. However, I’ve found that the people I encounter in my daily life don’t always know how to behave around us as a team, so I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some advice on the subject.
Assistance dogs (a.k.a. service dogs) can be any size or breed. The only requirement per the ADA is that the dog is well-behaved in public places and knows at least one task to mitigate the handler’s disability (providing comfort is not a task). There is no registry for service dogs or test they must pass. It is not even required that they wear identifying gear like vests. Service dogs are allowed anywhere that their handlers would be allowed alone (with a few exceptions).
The way the law is designed has allowed a lot of people like me to benefit from service dogs. Unfortunately, it also allows some people to pass their untrained pets off as assistance dogs. This is my first big DON’T—please DON’T pretend your pet is a service dog so that you can bring him/her to public places which don’t allow pets. Most assistance dogs go through an average of two years of intensive public access and task training to accompany their handlers in public, and when people pass misbehaved, untrained dogs off as service dogs, it not only makes others question the legitimacy of our assistance animals, making it harder for us to gain access to which we have a right, but it also distracts our dogs from the important jobs they do.
Speaking of distractions, please DON’T pet, call to, or otherwise distract a service dog from his/her handler. Our dogs act as medical equipment for us, and you wouldn’t grab a wheelchair from a wheelchair user without asking, so afford us the same courtesy. I occasionally allow people to pet Marcy, but I need to give her a command first so she knows she can receive attention, and there are times I would prefer not to interrupt what we are doing for her to be pet. Some handlers do not want their service dogs to be pet at all. This is a personal preference, and one that should be respected.
Along similar lines, please DON’T address the service dog before or instead of his/her handler. It is rude and dehumanizing, just as it would be if you addressed a d/Deaf person’s interpreter instead of them, or asked the companion of someone with a developmental disability about them while they are present.
Also, please DON’T bombard handlers with personal questions. I don’t mind answering a few inquiries here and there, but when I’m in the grocery store trying to buy milk, I don’t really want to stop what I’m doing to tell a stranger about my medical history. Accept that the handler needs the assistance dog for a reason, but you don’t always see or need to know that reason. If you encounter a service dog at your work in a public space (restaurants included), you are permitted by law to ask only two questions about him/her: First, is that a service dog? Second, what tasks is your dog trained to perform? If a handler answers the first question affirmatively but cannot answer the second, chances are that the dog does not fit the legal definition of an assistance dog, and may be asked to leave the establishment.
I know I drew an analogy between service dogs and wheelchairs above, but the fact is that they are not the same. Service dogs are more like employees—they are not always perfect and as handlers, we don’t expect them to be. We all make mistakes and have bad days. DON’T assume that, just because a service dog needs some correction, he/she is not “legitimate” or trained. That said, if a dog is behaving aggressively, creates a distraction, or is not house-trained, the handler may be asked to leave a public space, regardless of whether the dog is task-trained. If you notice an assistance dog behaving inappropriately in public without handler correction or control, it’s perfectly fine to get an employee to ask the team to leave.
So there you have it: my far-from-exhaustive primer on assistance dog etiquette. I’m happy to answer any additional questions you may have about assistance dogs, handlers, etc.—just not while I’m shopping. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.