In the past two months, the number of uncomfortable conversations I’ve had with strangers has gone up exponentially.
I’m a pretty friendly person and I live in Minnesota, land of overly curious randos, so I’m accustomed to strangers asking me about my profession, my relationship, my stance on politics, my social security number, etc. One thing I didn’t expect as a service dog handler, though, is the number of times a day strangers will think it’s totally cool to ask me invasive questions about my medical history. When I use my cane, a sympathetic pout and an “ohhh, what happened?” is normal, and I’m used to the uncomfortable silence when I reply, “Nothing, I’m just disabled.”
With a dog, though? Suddenly my life is Everybody’s Business, and after a while of listening to strangers quiz me about my medical history, it gets a little uncomfortable for everyone.
Coming into service dog ownership, I knew that I had to expect some questions and curious strangers, especially as someone with an invisible disability.
1. Don’t forget that while a service dog is working, they’re acting as a piece of medical equipment. Talk to the handler, not the dog.
Beyond it just being rude to suddenly get down in a random dog’s face, distracting a working dog can put the handler in danger. Even if you don’t think a service dog “looks busy,” if they’re in public, then they are working. I’ve even had people make kissy noises at my dog from across a room and actively try to get him to “come,” which–apart from just being weird and rude–puts me at risk when he is supporting me and then suddenly starts heading in another direction because someone is whistling and calling him. While service dogs are trained to focus on their handler, they are still dogs, and they can get distracted…especially when someone is trying real hard to intentionally distract them.
2. Don’t be offended if a handler doesn’t want to talk to you.
You are probably the tenth person that hour who has tried to stop to ask to pet the dog, ask questions about the dog, and inquire about the handler’s medical conditions. Working with a service dog often means that it takes a handler a ridiculously long time to get anywhere, and if you’re in a rush, it gets old. Beyond that–talking to person after person about the private details of your life is exhausting.
If I’m in a good mood, not in a hurry, and feel like my dog is in a good enough mood to be ogled, I’m happy to stop and talk to a person or two about Vinnie, but more often than not, I’m just trying to get to where I need to be. Some handlers are more receptive to discussing their dog with strangers than I am, and others are less. So feel free to say hi–but don’t be offended if the handler doesn’t have the time or energy for any kind of lengthy discussion.
3. Just because you did it once, doesn’t mean you can do it again.
If the woman in Starbucks with a service dog let you pet her dog one day, that doesn’t mean that the next time you see the dog you can immediately pet him again. In fact, it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you can pet the dog again ten minutes later when you’ve finished getting your coffee. Vinnie, like many other service dogs, has a specific command he knows that tells him it’s okay to say hello to someone while he’s working, and it confuses him every time if he didn’t hear the command but suddenly someone’s hands are all over his face.
Learn a lesson from the five-year-old who I recently met in a Chinese restaurant, who came up to me at least four times while we were eating to visit Vinnie, but who asked very politely every. single. time. if she could say hi to the dog. Basically, if your hands have left the dog, it’s better just to ask. It won’t be weird, it’ll be appreciated.
4. You can ask questions, but save the more invasive ones for the Internet.
I consider myself a disability advocate and I’m all about educating other people on the topic. When I’ve never met you in my life, though, and we’re in the middle of a crowded grocery store, it’s not necessarily the most comfortable time for me to answer your questions about every single aspect of my disability and medical history.
Curiosity about my dog and his training are totally fine, and if I have time, I’m more than willing to tell you all about owner-training and how service dog ownership works. I’m also totally open to listening and laughing politely while you tell me about your dog who looks exactly like mine but had an issue with such and such and that’s why he wouldn’t be a good service dog. But if you’re asking more questions about my health than my doctor does…eventually, one of us is going to feel pretty uncomfortable, and if I’m open to being honest with you that day, it probably isn’t going to be me. Don’t forget that you can figure out pretty much anything you have ever wanted to know on the Internet.
5. Keep an eye on your kids.
Two months ago, I would have thought that that advice in a service dog article would be ridiculous. Of course a parent is going to keep their kid under control around a strange dog, even if the dog is a service dog–isn’t that just common sense? Turns out, not so much.
I love kids, and Vinnie loves kids, so it’s a pretty good combination when we’re interacting with small humans. What isn’t so much fun for either of us is the toddler running after my sixty-five pound dog screaming “PUPPY!” and trying to pull the dog’s tail while his parent stands by smiling. In addition to distracting the dog, which isn’t safe for me, it also isn’t exactly the safest move for your kiddo. While service dogs are expected to “wash out,” or stop working as a service dog, if they show aggressive tendencies to either humans or animals, big dogs–like mine!–can very easily knock down a small child unintentionally if they manage to collide into one another. Overall, your lil’uns plus service dogs don’t necessarily mix.
6. Don’t make assumptions.
I was surprised to find that this is the thing that has come up over and over and over. If I had a quarter for every time a stranger has told me how wonderful it is that I’m raising a guide dog for someone else, I’d be rich. Add another quarter for every time someone has told me that my dog is the wrong breed to be a service dog and I’ll retire at twenty-five.
While most people’s idea of service dogs are Golden Retrievers or labs acting as guide dogs for the blind, working dogs come in all shapes and sizes and support a wide range of disabilities. My pup is a pit bull mix, and he’s absolutely the best dog I could have asked for in a mobility assistance dog. His butt is pure muscle and his strength is out of this world, which is exactly what I needed in my service dog. I know service Chihuahuas, service Poodles, and service Rottweilers, and I know medical alert dogs, hearing dogs, balance dogs, and psychiatric assistance dogs…just to name a few.
Overall? Interacting with a service dog shouldn’t be difficult for you, the dog, or the handler. Even though they have an adorable animal attached to them, service dog handlers are not particularly different than any other member of the public you would interact with. Chances are, they’re just trying to get through their day before they can head home–and that’s the way you should treat them and their dog.