Some variation of the “DO NOT DISTRACT” patch regularly appears on Service Dog vests, jackets, and harnesses. However, Service Dog handlers still report that members of the public frequently ignore the patch. Distracting a Service Dog is dangerous for both the dog and handler. Frequently, though, people don’t know what distracts Service Dogs! Keep reading to learn more about distractions, Service Dogs, and how to avoid causing problems for working Service Dog teams you see in public.
Every Service Dog handler, trainer, and puppy raiser has dozens of stories about members of the public distracting their Service Dog or Service Dog in Training (SDiT). Dog lovers often see a Service Dog working in a store and want to engage with the dog or handler. Many don’t realize, though, that touching, talking to, making noises at, or offering food to a Service Dog is not only annoying but can also be dangerous. Distracted Service Dogs pull their focus away from their handler and their job to focus on the person engaging them. For some teams, even a split-second shift in focus can result in falls, injury, or other issues.
What’s the Rule About Interacting With Service Dogs?
A simple rule exists for engaging Service Dogs in public: don’t. Avoid talking to them. Don’t use a baby voice or make kissy sounds. Don’t crouch down or try to make them look at you. Resist petting them without explicit permission from the handler. Don’t offer food, treats, tidbits, or toys. Don’t block their way or try to scare them. Basically, pretend the Service Dog doesn’t exist and you’ll be doing just fine. Everything someone does that is intended to get a reaction from the dog counts as a distraction. The solution is simple: just let the Service Dog work in peace. Engage directly with the handler if necessary for everyday interaction or business.
What Are Common Distractions?
Service Dog Distractions: Touch and Petting
Americans tend to be a bunch of dog-loving people. Many people enjoy interacting with dogs and like petting them. When these people see a dog in public they often assume the dog is friendly and immediately reach out to pet or touch them. One of the most common complaints Service Dog handlers and trainers voice is that people ignore their “DO NOT PET” patch. They often report that people ignore the patch no matter how big or brightly colored it appears!
Touching, petting or patting Service Dogs and SDiTs causes the dog to shift attention from their handler to the person touching them. It may even cause them to get wiggly and excited if the dog hasn’t been very carefully schooled in remaining still when excited. For Brace and Mobility Support Dogs, this often results in shifts in their handler’s balance or causes a fall. For other kinds of Service Dogs, touching or petting them could cause them to miss an alert or to cause the handler to panic.
Service Dog Distractions: Talking and Noise
People love talking to dogs. Many people reflexively use a high-pitched tone or an excited voice when doing so. Most people doing this are excited to see a dog and hope for a chance to engage with the dog. Oftentimes, they don’t realize the dog is a Service Dog. Occasionally, though, people will comment, “Oh I know I shouldn’t talk to them but they’re just so cute!”, often while crouching down or delightedly calling the dog to them. This behavior is irritating at best and dangerous at worst.
Dogs have sensitive hearing and often turn their head, gaze, or ears towards noises, especially loud or excited ones. It’s oft said that the body folllows the head. When it comes to positioning and physical task work, it remains true. Experienced Service Dogs are often capable of ignoring environmental noises, but young ones are usually still working on it.
Unfortunately, some people delight in trying to get the dog to react to them or in trying to scare the Service Dog. These people regularly bark, make animal sounds, make kissy noises, whistle, or jostle something to make a loud noise. Scaring a Service Dog, especially on purpose, can cause irrevocable damage to their training, confidence, and ability to work.
Service Dog Distractions: Food and Objects
Service Dogs learn excellent food refusal skills, both active and passive. Active food refusal happens when a dog is told to “leave it” or is able to leave something directly offered to them. Passive food refusal happens when a dog walks past food on the floor or on tables and ignores it without being told. Both are vital Service Dog skils. However, many Service Dog candidates are selected for high food drive. As such, they’re usually trained with food, toys, or some combination of both, so they’re used to taking food and rewards from people’s hands. Many Service Dogs, especially younger ones, learn that food offered directly to them is for them. Members of the public regularly try to offer snacks or treats to Service Dogs. Oftentimes, these tidbits are inappropriate for a dog’s nutritional needs. In addition to being highly distracting, the snacks can cause upset bellies or sickness in the dog.
Dogs love food, especially smelly food like chips, hot dogs, and other noms people regularly offer them. Few things can cause as complete a shift in focus as some food shoved in front of the dog’s nose. In addition to causing a dangerous lack of attention, random reinforcement by members of the public can cause younger SDiTs to continually seek treats from strangers. Until a Service Dog masters active food refusal and gains solid handler focus, food often remains a challenge.
Service Dog Distractions: Interference
People often find it funny to block the dog or to send a skateboard, cart, or something else rolling towards the dog. These distractions are not only dangerous because of the shift in focus from the dog, but can also present a very real physical hazard to the Service Dog and handler alike.
Service Dog Distractions: Other Animals
Other dogs and animals in public deserve a special mention. All Service Dogs undergo training to both tolerate and ignore dogs, cats, and other animals. However, more and more often, Service Dog teams run into fake Service Dogs or poorly trained ESAs and pets. These dogs regularly lunge at, bark, growl, or try to fight real Service Dogs. Most well-trained Service Dogs with the proper temperament don’t react to these distractions, but others find them extremely distressing. Service Dogs who are attacked or molested by other dogs in public routinely have to be career changed.
All dogs in public, including Service Dogs, should have a safe temperament and the training necessary to behave appropriately at all times. Those who lack either or both are distractions that are not only dangerous to the Service Dog teams who encounter them but also to the Service Dog world at large.
But What About Distraction Proofing?
Service Dogs undergo hundreds to thousands of hours of training so they can work in public. Lots of that training revolves around proofing distractions. Young Service Dogs learn to ignore motion, noise, scents, and other common situations so they can better serve their handler. However, trainers often select Service Dog candidates for their balanced, friendly, social nature. As such, many Service Dogs, especially those in training, enjoy interaction with people and other animals. A big part of their job involves learning to temper that excitement so they can work.
Consequently, people who try to engage or distract the SDiT or Service Dog can easily set back or undo training that’s in process. For fully trained dogs, trying to distract them results in the dog needing to purposefully ignore the person instead of being able to happily focus on their job. Well-trained Service Dogs should be able to ignore common distractions but they shouldn’t have to.
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