When it comes to service dog etiquette, I need to give a shoutout to the kids! The girl pictured here is eight year-old Abby; she represents an impressive consciousness many children seem to possess with regard to manners around dogs in public, where many adults seem to be lacking. I took this picture during an outdoor lunch meeting in Sebastopol, CA a couple of weeks ago, after Abby approached me, and with a very mature and respectful tone, asked if it would be okay for her to pet Betty. She went on to tell me that she had just finished a report for school on Guide Dogs, and was very knowledgable and conscientious about the whole topic.
Just moments earlier, two different adults had to come by and reached out to touch Betty without so much as looking at me first, much less asking permission. Literally at the same time that one woman’s hand made contact with Betty’s head, she said “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but…”.
I certainly understand the temptation to interact with these amazing animals; I often reflect on how lucky I am that, as her trainer, I get to love on Betty to my heart’s content. However, it is never a good idea to approach any dog without asking first, much less a working dog! While there are no hard and fast laws about petting service dogs, (as different trainers and handlers will have different ideas about this), the general rule is to ask before petting at the very least. Better still is to simply admire from a distance. It is important to recognize that a person with a service dog, like any other person, is trying to go about their day as normally as possible; they may not have time or feel like stopping to talk to all the folks who inevitably will have stopped them at one point or another throughout a given day to chat about their dog.
Now, that being said, I always strive to educate people where I am able, which includes chatting with people when they ask me about Betty. The reality is that many people simply don’t know whether petting a service dog is okay or not, and as a professional in this field, an important part of my job is to create understanding in this realm.
Furthermore — speaking of using challenging situations as teaching moments — lunch with friends in an outdoor setting provides a context chock full of opportunities to learn and practice self control for a service dog in training (and her trainer). Bikes, skateboards, other dogs, blowing leaves, people approaching from all angles. This “slice of life” brand training session offers one distraction after another, each varying in degree of closeness and intensity. And, just as much as learning skills and following commands, these public-access related challenges are what service dog training is all about. So when a person reaches for Betty, explaining in a high-pitched voice that she “just couldn’t resist”, I ask Betty to maintain focus on me, keep from rising to the petter’s excitement level, and stay in position at my feet. It is good practice for her and good practice for me. And hopefully everyone learns a little something by the end of the day!