Service Animal Etiquette. Seriously, People.

This entry is part 7 of 25 in the series Service Dog Training
Cebus apella group. Capuchin Monkeys Sharing

Capuchin Monkeys Sharing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was at a restaurant once when a woman was seated at the next table with her service animal, a Capuchin monkey. I was horrified when a man brought his son to her table to “meet your monkey” and pet it.

Seriously, mister, would you bring your kid over and say, “We think your electric scooter is really cool and my son wants to push its brightly-colored buttons”? Of course not. So why would you assume you can handle other medical equipment, which is what service animals legally are?

I’ve heard horror stories from those who use service dogs daily, but still I’ve been really surprised since I started working with Mindy at just how rude some people are around service animals. And while most people are pretty good at not interfering with her or at least asking before reaching for her, there are others which are ruining the picnic for everyone, and I don’t get it. I mean, we’ve had service dogs among us for nearly a century, right?

(Warning: I acknowledge openly that R+ is the best behavior modification option. But this blog post contains P+, in that I strongly criticize. Proceed with caution.)

Service Dogs and Children

I often explore potential conversations in my head well in advance of when I’ll need them. I don’t know if everyone does this, or if it’s just my way of having a response ready or a by-product of writing dialogue, but I’ll often let a conversation run in ways that I wouldn’t actually complete in real life, just to see where it goes. In Mindy’s first week here I started with a phrase I suspected I might hear soon: “It’s not fair to expect kids to refrain from running up to pet a dog. It’s not realistic to ask that of kids.”

“Well,” I answered myself, “it’s not only polite and the legally correct thing to do, I think it’s very fair. After all, this puppy is the developmental equivalent of a human toddler about two years old, and I’m expecting her to remain calm and polite next to me in the presence of kids. Only seems fair that it goes both ways, and I expect you’d be pretty upset if I let her off-leash to jump on your kid.”

“Yeah, but that dog’s supposed to be well-behaved.”

“Yep, because I’m raising her to be well-mannered and to contribute to society.” /significant pause/

Of course, all that was just in my head, and I knew it was a bit over the top. But actually, it wasn’t.

Recently (I’ve deliberately delayed posting this story to protect identities), a parent indeed said to me, “But it’s not realistic to expect kids not to run up on a dog, even a service dog.”

My script was ready, though I softened the language, and I explained that it was in fact critical that kids learned to respect service dogs, for the safety of the dogs and the kids and the disabled handlers, and that I was expecting this dog to be calm and mannerly around kids, so why not the other way around?

“Yeah,” he said, “but a blind person isn’t going to be able to see the kids to tell them to stay back, so the dog’s going to have to be able to work while the kids pet it anyway. They should be able to handle it.”

An Invacare Perfecto 2 Oxygen Concentrator.

The arthritic-friendly toggle switch on this Invacare Perfecto 2 Oxygen Concentrator is totally irresponsible, since a kid could just turn off someone’s oxygen because the switch looks so inviting. I mean, any parent knows it’s unrealistic to ask a kid to resist switching off someone’s oxygen, right? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not even sure what I said at that point, except that it was somewhat more polite than what I was thinking, which was more along these lines:

  1. Why is the blind citizen responsible for a strange child’s action instead of the parent? Do you really believe the burden of a disabled citizen’s safety and ability to “participate fully in the social and economic life of the state and to engage in remunerative employment,” as Indiana code states, rests on the disabled person, and not on the parents of the child who is threatening said safety and ability?
  2. Why must a hard-working service dog put up with harassment on the job?
  3. Why can’t a healthy child learn civilized and safe behavior?
  4. Do you also think it’s okay for a kid to pull on someone’s crutches or climb on a wheelchair, since it’s unrealistic to expect him to hold back if it looks like fun?
  5. And, are you really letting your child run up on any dog, then? Do you have any idea both how rude and how dangerous that is?

Unbelievable. My mind was quite boggled.

I do want to point out that during this exchange Mindy was solidly at my side, getting clicks and treats and not even moving out of her sit, while someone else repeatedly blocked this parent’s still-unrestrained child. Good girl.

And yes, I understand that some kids are too young to really understand the concept or importance of their behavior. That’s kind of like a puppy not yet having the self-control to resist running children, yeah? And that’s why I had a physical attachment to the puppy and was actively reinforcing good behavior before it could go bad. You know, taking responsibility for her actions.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people understand that service dogs are not toys, and I’ve overheard many parents tell their kids that the dog cannot be approached while working. Bravo, parents! Thanks for raising good citizens!

On the other hand, not long ago I was walking in a public area with Mindy when a parent sent their toddler to go see the cute puppy. (Without checking me with or anything.) The toddler obediently ran up to us, startling the puppy and exciting her. Before, Mindy was walking nicely at my side past children. After, I had a puppy who barked at seeing any passing children. We’re making progress on that, but it’s a problem I shouldn’t have had to fix.

Making the Service Dog Look Bad

I was sitting in a meeting, Mindy lying on a mat by my side and getting occasional treats for remaining quiet and still. She was doing great, so well that I was thinking about extending duration between treats.

I was paying attention to the meeting and so I missed the approach of danger up the side aisle. When I looked back, a woman (who previously had been told she could not interact with the puppy without permission) was bending over the dog, making full eye contact, and whispering to the puppy.

Most dogs are not comfortable having someone lean over their air space and stare at them, and even my Shakespeare and Laevatein with years of public practice beneath their belts were deeply uncomfortable with this. (Imagine a stranger leaning over your head and torso as you’re seating or lying down, and you’ll get a sense of why.) Mindy reacted as any puppy might, choosing the fourth F of “fool around,” and she leapt up barking and bouncing. The woman laughed. While Mindy stopped barking quickly, it took her a number of minutes to settle again.

Behind me, a man commented, “That dog sure doesn’t mind well, does it?” And after the meeting, he made a point of approaching me to point out my dog’s ill behavior.

But the dog had been lying quietly before.

People who rely upon service dogs also rely upon those dogs being welcome. By prompting bad behavior in a service dog (causing her to bark, pull toward strangers, jump up when greeted, etc.), even if you don’t mind, you are causing observers to think poorly of the dogs and making their handlers’ access more difficult.

Distracting the Service Dog

Today we were walking in the mall, just getting some exercise with a bonus of socialization. I was very pleased, as we’d just passed several children with no barking, which is progress after the incident already mentioned.

And then a mall-walker came up on our six, making alien “woob woob woob” noises as she reached for Mindy. She wore earbuds and never looked at me, focused on the puppy, and she apparently could neither read the “Guide Dog in Training” vest nor hear me over her music and her own woob woob woob-ing.

Mindy was quite startled, as I imagine most of us would be if a stranger grabbed one’s butt while making woob woob woob noises. I bent to block the puppy, putting my face in the woman’s view, and said firmly, “Please don’t.” She was quite surprised at my intervention and then walked on, a bit indignant.

Mindy took a while to settle again, and she kept looking behind us as people passed, waiting for the next space alien woob attack.

Service dogs must be able to focus on their jobs. A guide dog needs to be aware of all 360 degrees (“is that car coming this way?”) as well as overhead (“is that ladder sticking out too low for my person to safely cross under?”). Here’s a real-life incident caught on security camera last year, in which a GDB dog in training alerted his trainers of unexpected threat.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”n9sA2Rzs-qI” width=”640″ height=”480″ auto_thumb=”1″]

Scary, right?

What if, instead of listening all around him, that dog had been wondering about the passersby? “That woman is dressed just like the woman who grabbed my butt and woobed at me, so I’d better keep an eye on her!” A dog who keeps checking the other pedestrians to see if they’re about to make a dive for him is a dog not fully focused everywhere else.

The Guilty

There are several levels of infraction, I’ve noticed. I of course don’t mind answering questions or explaining to the genuinely uninformed! but the last three here are pretty annoying.

The Unobservant

A man reached down to Mindy, talking to her, and then read aloud, “Oh, guide puppy! I’m sorry.” He drew back his hand and moved away. He knew better, just missed the signs, and he caught his own error. I sincerely thanked him.

(It’s worth noting that not all service animals wear vests, so never assume.)

The Indignant

“What, I can’t pet her just because she’s a service dog? But that’s so mean!”

No, not really. Mean to you? Nah, you were already planning to run this errand without playing with a puppy, weren’t you? So really no change at all to your day. Mean to her? Nope, I’m just making her job easier. You’d be pretty annoyed if I turned puppies loose on you while you were trying to do your taxes, right?

The Entitled

“Please don’t,” I said, treating Mindy for coming back to me from the roughhousing stranger. “You need to ask before you interact with a service dog.”

“No, it’s okay,” he said, reaching for her again. “I have labs at home.”

Um, no, that doesn’t make it okay. Having a Labrador yourself doesn’t give you special dispensation to interrupt this one.

Or another real life reply, “No, it’s okay, we’re just hugging.”

Unless I see an actual membership card to the I’m Too Special For The Rules club (and you still have to show it first before reaching), I’m going to have to block your grabby hands, sorry.

The Hypocrite

Quite a few people will come up, lean down over the puppy, and croon, “I know I’m not supposed to mess with you, so I’m not touching you! Look, not touching! You’re so cute and wiggly, whee! So squishy! Not touching!”

When I try to intervene, because the puppy is by now probably totally distracted or even bouncing and barking as described above, this person will usually defend himself or herself by proudly stating that they didn’t touch the puppy, they knew better, and they did nothing wrong.

These people are quite frustrating, because they’re pretending to have the high ground while continuing to do exactly as they please and even seeing the results. Anyone who ever took a car ride with a sibling knows exactly how annoying the “I’m not touching you” defense is, and exactly how valid it is when offered as a “I wasn’t doing anything” protest. Which is to say, not at all.

We Have Rules, Too

Per state law, a trainer or handler is liable for any damage a service dog or service dog in training does, and the dog must exhibit non-disruptive behavior (so for example, if a service dog is repeatedly barking in a movie theater, it should be removed).

A bark or two in a public area is probably not going to be considered “disruptive,” but we do try to keep it close to zero. Some days we do better than others, and this early in the training a lot depends on what we encountered on our last outing.

So we really, really appreciate the people who simply comment, “Cute puppy!” or ask, “What is she training for?” And I will always thank you for asking before reaching for her, always, whether I give permission or not.

So How Should We Act Around Service Animals?

You act as you would with any other piece of medical equipment — you ignore it unless asked.

Yes, sometimes dogs in training can be greeted, because they need social time, too. And Mindy certainly plays and snuggles with friends when she’s out of vest and on her own time. But it’s not fair to her or to her future partner to disrupt and distract her when she’s on the clock.

And yes, some service animals may be greeted, and some handlers are happy to explain what their helpers do. But many handlers don’t wish to discuss their medical issues with strangers, and many dislike constant attention, so it’s best never to assume.

In short, if you wouldn’t do it to a pair of crutches, or a wheelchair, or a scooter, or a breathing aid, don’t do it to a service dog. Just a good rule of thumb.

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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  1. Great post! I found that being a puppy raiser involved a lot of human education as well as puppy education. Like you I found sometimes the humans were harder to educate.

  2. Wonderful article. Yes, adults should be in control of children whether that means hold the child or hold their hand. There is no excuse for a child to ever run up to any dog and especially a service dog or service dog in training.

  3. Excellent!! Totally true! I’m often amazed at how bold and rude people can be about petting my Service Dog. I got a 4×6″ patch that says “Service dog- IGNORE ME – I’m working” and it has worked better than any other patches I have tried! The ignore me text is in red, other words in black. But some people still “don’t see it”. I’m thinking I need to put one on the top of his head and another hanging from his tail 🙂 The “I’m not touching him” defense doesn’t work with these patches. 🙂

    • Good point re the “not touching” defense! I don’t want that patch for Mindy, as sometimes she *can* meet people right now, but it needs to be structured so that she learns to wait rather than just dive toward anyone passing us. I’d thought the vest should be sufficient, but apparently not!

  4. I’m not sure if this will make you feel any better, but my ~ 9 yr old dog Abby (who is not a cute wiggly puppy :)) “got mauled” by an adult woman a few months ago while we were walking in a somewhat busy shopping district area. She just bent over and started petting Abby (~ 65 lb hound mix) on her head. I said “Excuse me, but I would appreciate if you would ask me before you touch my dog. Just like I’m sure you would like to be asked before someone grabbed you”. She got huffy with me and walked on by. Then a few minutes later she came back at us saying how I had ruined her day and given her such a bad vibe. I tried to explain to her that if my dog had snapped or bit her, it would be my butt that would be rung up the legal flagpole due to her stupidity. I asked if she goes around grabbing and picking up toddlers. She said why of course not, and I then replied then don’t go around doing that to dogs.

    If she had the courtesy to ask, I would have let her pet Abby. I’m pretty lucky Abby is quite tolerant of getting hugs, petting and such. Like you, I also praise kids (and their parents) that ask me if they can pet my dog. Most times I let them. However, if Abby has her sights on a critter, I’ll tell them another time.

    There are a lot of rude people in the world today. Good luck with this battle and give Mindy a few extra ear scritches tonight, sounds like she has to work extra hard too.

    • It’s such a simple thing to ask, and yet…. It happens with humans, too, though. My sister and I both have long hair — hers is butt-length — and it’s surprising how many people will just come up and handle it, even show it to their friends, despite the fact that we are total strangers. O.o Some people just don’t get it!

      • It’s especially bad with pregnant women. Many, many people think that seeing a baby bump entitles them to touch and caress a stranger’s abdomen. It is so incredibly invasive.

        I suppose a lot of these instincts were formed when society looked much different (in many ways, smaller) than it does today. But with increasing societal complexity and freedoms, people need to respect more unspoken rules. That’s the trade-off.

        My worst invasion-of-space dog horror story: Not long after we adopted our border collie mix, who was semi-feral when rescued, I took him and my corgi to PetSmart. They were on leash and doing very well, when a woman with a three year old child and an infant walked up to me. The infant was in a carrier in the cart, and she could not have been more than three months old.

        Without any warning whatsoever – not a single word exchanged between us – the women took the carrier, with infant inside, and set it on the floor just inches in front of my dogs. Meanwhile the three year old began petting and exclaiming about the dogs.

        My heart literally stopped, and I’m sorry to say that I froze. I literally could not believe what was happening. I had never seen Strider (border collie mix) interact with a child of ANY kind before.

        What happened? He inspected the infant and gave it a single lick on the face before settling back into his sit.

        But he could literally have killed her. I was totally at a loss for words and left the store immediately; I think it took at least a half hour for my heart rate to return to normal. This woman seemed to be of a different ethnic/cultural background, but that’s no excuse. I really wish I’d been able to rebuke her.

        I greatly admire you and all other dog owners who take the time to educate the public on proper etiquette. I’m a shy, non-assertive person, so it’s very hard for me to give instructions like that to strangers. I’d actually love to see a video of this kind of education in progress — it’s hard for me to find the right tone/way of saying it.

  5. ps… Abby is not a service dog… just my walking companion.

  6. Agreed. I love that you point out that children should be expected to behave just as much as our dogs are and the connection between service dogs and medical devices.
    I’ve found recently as we do more presentations at school that kids are much better at teaching their parents about service dog etiquette than visa versa. It’s pretty funny and really cool to see a five year old tell their mom or older sibling “you can’t pet that dog because it’s working!” often adding that they learned about that in school. The parents can’t help but display self control when their five year old is doing better than they are.

  7. Sadly some parents think that the rest of the world is there to accommodate their children. I totally agree with your comments, it’s up to the parents to take control of their offspring. I personally don’t like strange children anywhere near my dogs as they are too unpredictable – the children, not my dogs.

    • It’s pretty darn irritating to be shopping and have a parent say “Look at the doggie!”, and then listen to the kid go into screaming fits because they can’t pet it. I have pointedly told both parents and single adults that I am not there for their amusement or to be their petting zoo. If the kid gets really loud I take real pride in walking off and leaving them to scream in their parent’s ears.

  8. This is an absolutely wonderful post, and as a service dog handler with a young dog (who because he’s young still can be distracted by some of these people) I wish more people understood the concept of ‘ignore the dog’. Almost worse though are the people who squeal and coo, then go forth to tell you how much they wish they could bring their dog everywhere.

    There seems to be a disconnect with people, that makes them not realize that the whole reason I have the dog is because I have a life altering disability, that I would love to be able to go through the day without Needing to have a dog with me everywhere I go.

  9. Laura, I LOVE this article. I could have written it myself. In fact I basically verbally stated almost every point in your article to my wife this evening after my Future Leader Dog Penny and I returned from dinner at a local restaurant. We had a 35 minute wait in the lobby for a table, I hate waiting for a table, but I immediately reframed that as a great training opportunity for Penny. It turned into almost all of your above situations from the “I have labs at home” guy, to the “Hi puppy puppy puppy” lady. Your story made me smile, I feel the need to print this and carry copies with me to hand out to the guilty ones. Maybe then they will get it.

  10. I get the same petting problem or dog interacttion issues with my dog/pet. Really pisses me off when someone asks i say no or i’d rather not and they continue anyway. My Lily has been bitten by two other dogs recently and I am trying to slowly reaclimate her to public events and good behavior around other dogs. It bothers me mostly because I am trying to ensure no one gets hurt my Lily or them or their dog since she has been a little on edge after the second bite. The fact that someone has the nerver to approach a dog that is 130 lbs after being told no is mind boggling.

  11. I visited with my former foster dog (now an assistance dog) and her handler this week. I sat quietly in the pharmacy with them as her “mom” was repeatedly approached with the question “Can I pet your dog?”. I was very proud of her as she kindly but firmly told each person “No”. As we left, a young woman who clearly had heard each of those exchanges started to coo and distract the dog. Handler and dog were distracted but regrouped and walked out the door. I just couldn’t walk away….reigned in my irritation and quietly started to explain why she shouldn’t try to talk to someone’s service dog. Her boyfriend started to argue with me and as I walked away (no sense in having a confrontation) he yelled, “If she doesn’t want people to pay attention to her dog she shouldn’t bring the dog into public places” at my retreating back. I laughed hysterically all the way to the car….what else are ya gonna do?

  12. As a puppy raiser, I find it amazing that most children will ask before they pet a dog in training – rarely does an adult show the same consideration.

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