When you have a Service Dog by your side 24 hours a day, you have to accept that you will never be invisible again. Everywhere you go, all eyes will be on you chances are someone will have something to say about the furry partner at your side. Your days of anonymity are gone — and this can be very stressful for many individuals.
The overwhelming majority of people are well-meaning and comment on how attractive or well trained Service Dogs are. After all, most people either love dogs or have a pet dog of their own. But not everyone is tactful, polite or kind. After talking to lots of fellow Service Dog teams, I came up with a list. Please don’t say or do these things to Service Dog teams.
1. Don’t pet or talk to a Service Dog.
This is the number one pet peeve among Service Dog users. Petting or talking to a working Service Dog can distract the dog from his job and put the safety of the human partner at risk. Some service dog users do allow their dog to interact with others on occasion, but as a rule of thumb, if a Service Dog is in public, he is working and you should not pet him, talk to him, or try to distract him from his job in any way. For a more in depth explanation of why, please click here.
2. Don’t assume a person is blind because they have a Service Dog.
Although Guide Dogs are the most well known variety, Service Dogs can be trained to assist people with a wide array of disabilities — including invisible ones — like epilepsy, cardiac conditions, PTSD, diabetes, hearing impairments or difficulties with mobility.
3. Don’t assume a person is training the dog because you can’t see their disability.
This is high on the list of DONT’S for people with invisible disabilities. You can’t always tell that a person is disabled just by looking at them. For example, Service Dogs can be trained to respond to a seizure but you can’t SEE that someone has epilepsy.
4. Don’t ask a person about their disability.
Asking someone what is “wrong” with them is a very personal question and is downright rude. No one wants to divulge their medical history to a stranger in the checkout line at Walmart. It doesn’t matter how curious you are, it is quite simply none of your business. While some Service Dog handlers welcome the opportunity to answer questions and spread awareness, not everyone feels this way; and we all have bad days where we just want to be left alone to go about our business in peace. Respect this. You may be the tenth person to stop them and ask that particular question today.
5. Don’t point and whisper “It’s a dog!”
It should be common sense, but whispering and pointing at anyone for any reason is just plain rude. This behavior is especially upsetting when it is an adult speaking to their child. Even though our dogs are beautiful creatures, they provide medical assistance. You would never say to your child, “Look honey! It’s a wheelchair!” It really is the same principle. You are pointing out and drawing attention to a disabled person purely because of their disability.
6. Don’t gear shame or body shame.
Service Dog handlers use a wide array of equipment when their dog is working. Although you may disagree with the use of certain types of equipment, you should never engage in gear shaming. For example, a head harness, such as a Gentle Leader or Halti Headcollar, may be used to compensate for a lack or strength and dexterity in the hands. Any gear being used by a Service Dog team is being used for a reason.
Likewise, don’t body shame the dog. It is surprising how often body shaming can occur even in the world of service dogs. You can hear everything from complaints about a dog’s weight to complaints about grooming choices.
7. Don’t take pictures.
This would seem like a no brainer, but it happens surprisingly often. Do not take someone’s picture without getting their permission first. If you ask them first, they may say yes, depending on the circumstances; but it is never okay to do so without asking. Once again, you should think of a Service Dog as medical equipment. You (hopefully) wouldn’t sneak a picture of somebody’s wheelchair.
8. Don’t judge a dog’s working ability based on breed.
Many different breeds can be service dogs besides Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. For example, Standard Poodles are one of the most intelligent breeds and can mae wonderful Service Dogs, especially for those who have allergies. Small breeds, while not suitable for mobility assistance, commonly work as alert dogs and hearing assistance dogs. Breed alone in no way determines whether a dog is capable of working as a Service Dog.
9. Don’t tell a service dog handler how to care for their dog.
Giving a Service Dog handler unsolicited advice about how to care for their dog is much like telling a parent how to care for their child. In the same way you would not tell a parent what to feed their child, you should refrain from giving such advice to Service Dog handlers.
10. Don’t forget that a Service Dog user is a real person.
It is all too easy to forget that the human being attached to the other end of the leash is a real person with real feelings — and this is especially true in the world of social media. Interact with us just like you would anyone else. Talk to us, get to know us. We are more than just the disabilities that have brought these amazing canines into our lives.