In 1929, the Seeing Eye opened their doors on a revolutionary new program which paired specially trained guide dogs with blind people to help those people regain some of the independence they had lost along with their sight. The program blossommed, and continues on today, along with a host of other similar programs which train assistance dogs of all sizes and shapes and skills. These dogs range from hearing ear dogs, to PTSD dogs helping veterans survive the day-to-day struggles of life after war. There are dogs who can smell when their partners’ blood sugar has dropped dangerously low and alert them. There are dogs who can tell when a handler is about to have a seizure and alert him so that he can take appropriate steps. There are dogs who interrupt panic attacks, turn on lights, check to make sure rooms are clear. And there are the mobility dogs who help people to balance and to get around. These dogs can pick up just about anything, hand money to a cashier, turn lights on and off, bring things from the fridge, even help with the laundry.
Dogs are nothing but amazing.
But most people are sadly ignorant of all these different types of service dogs, all of whom are protected under the Americans with Disability Act. There are more than just guide dogs for the blind! Other service dogs are just as highly trained and indispensible to their partners no matter what the disability.
Up until the recent past, I paid about as much attention to service dogs as any other able-bodied, able-minded American. I knew they existed. Once in awhile I saw one and it was like seeing a celebrity. But that was the extent of my knowledge.
And then I ended up needing a service dog, and depending on one to be able to manage the parts of every day life that most people go through without a second thought. At this point, I can’t imagine being without him. He is that integral to my functioning.
But being out in public with my clearly vested dog has opened my eyes to how utterly ignorant many people are around and about service dogs.
A service dog can be large or small. He can be walking by his owner’s side, leading him, or held in his arms. It all depends on what the dog is being used for. Just because a person doesn’t look a certain way, doesn’t mean that their dog is not doing important work. Just because we do not meet your stereotypes does not mean we are fakers. Not all disabilities are visible.
Service dogs are allowed to go just about anywhere a person can go, with a few exceptions such as sterile surgical suites and sometimes zoos. Service dogs are allowed in restuarants. Service dogs are allowed in schools. Service dogs are allowed at Major League Baseball games and in amusement parks. They are allowed in your local grocery store and at your mall. You might see them in your doctor’s office waiting room or at the hospital. They are allowed to be there even if food is being served (although a good service dog will not beg or try to steal food off the table, or even take food that is dropped on the floor).
Please do not try to disrupt these dogs while they are working. Do not bark at them, do not try to pet them, do not throw food or toys at them, do not babytalk or make kissy noises at them (this means you, too, adults). Just leave. them. alone. These dogs are very well trained, but they are still dogs, and their attention wavering at the wrong moment because somebody at the mall was barking at him again (why people think this is funny, I will never understand) could end up in disaster for the person depending on him.
Please don’t treat the owner as if she’s not there. There are two members in every service dog team. It’s ok to ask polite questions, but don’t be offended if the handler is not interested in talking or in revealing her personal information or history. General questions are usually ok, but “what do you need a service dog for, you don’t look disabled?” is not an ok question.
Business employees may ask two specific questions to verify if the service dog is a “real” one. He may ask whether the dog is a service dog, and he may ask what tasks the dog has been trained to perform. That’s it. He may not ask why the handler needs a service dog, what disability afflicts them.
Employees may ask any dog who is disruptive to leave. This is one that I think employees don’t necessarily know and that they are afraid to use. If the dog truly is a service dog and the dog is being disruptive and is not under the control of the handler, the ADA still gives permission to businesses to ask them to leave. While all service dogs are guaranteed access to any public place under federal law, that federal law does not allow them to abuse the privilege and cause problems.
It’s just a service dog, not a unicorn. Service dog teams may be uncommon in your area, but surely you’re aware that they exist, right? Don’t stare, don’t cause a scene, don’t whip out your cell phone to snap a picture. Just let us go about our business. Just let us fit seamlessly into the flow of people on the street or in the aisle. Respect our privacy and our space the way you would that of any other stranger.
And please, stop trying to pet my dog when I’m not looking. He doesn’t like it.