For those of us with experience going out in public with a hearing, guide, or service dog, we’ve had a wide variety of interactions with strangers. We certainly understand that people love dogs, and that they’re used to approaching pets to say hi, tousle their fur, and ask a few questions of the owner. But things are very different for people with disabilities who are partnered with an assistance dog.
On top of that, people are naturally curious about life with an assistance dog. That too is completely understandable—and those of us partnered with these amazing animals are generally eager for the world to learn about all they do—but asking strangers about deeply personal matters isn’t an appropriate way to get answers. There are plenty of free resources online that address these questions, all readily available with a quick Google search.
Below are 15 things about life with an assistance dog those of us who have one would like the public to understand. If you’ve ever had an encounter with someone and their assistance dog that didn’t go as expected, hopefully this provides some insight into why it played out the way it did. Otherwise, please keep these things in mind the next time you see someone with a service, hearing, or guide dog.
Important Information About Assistance Dogs and the People Partnered with Them
- Assistance dogs are not pets. They are working animals that perform specific tasks for which they are thoroughly trained to help people mitigate their disabilities.
- Not all disabilities are visibly apparent. Assistance dogs help people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders, difficulty balancing, impaired hearing, diabetes and other conditions affecting blood sugar, life-threatening allergies, PTSD, and other conditions you can’t see.
- Just because a dog isn’t wearing a vest or harness, that doesn’t mean she’s not a “real” assistance dog. Some do wear identifiers, but many don’t; there’s no legal requirement that they be identified or certified in any way. Also, any breed and any size dog can be an assistance dog.
- Please don’t ask someone with an assistance dog what their disability is, what the dog does, or other personal questions. Few people appreciate strangers poking their noses into private issues; use of an assistance dog is necessary; it’s not some sort of voluntary invitation to violate this social norm.
- In addition to the above, keep in mind that so many people want to ask all the same things you want to ask; this can turn a simple trip to the store into quite a drawn-out ordeal. Imagine if multiple people stopped you everywhere you went to ask you the same things over and over.
- People live with their assistance dogs for the duration of their partnership (and sometimes beyond that), which lasts until the dog is no longer able to comfortably, safely, happily, and effectively perform her duties; these animals aren’t rented or “on loan.”
- It’s not appropriate to approach, talk to, touch, make eye contact with, bring your dog over to, or in any other way interact with an assistance dog in public. It’s also not appropriate to ask the person if you may do any of these things.
- The reason for the above is that assistance dogs are working, and their job is to protect their human. This means the dog is vigilantly monitoring for signs of an oncoming seizure, scanning for tripping hazards, or safeguarding her partner from other potential dangers. The person’s well-being or life may literally depend on the dog remaining completely alert and focused on the tasks for which she is trained.
- Yes, people with assistance dogs have a legally protected right to go anywhere the public is permitted with the animal.
- Guide, hearing, and service dogs are highly trained to behave well in public and minimize the space they take up.
- People partnered with a working dog know they are expected to keep their assistance dogs clean, free of unpleasant odors, and properly groomed.
- Don’t tell someone with an assistance dog that you feel sorry for the animal because she has to work. She is treasured and loved. She was hand-picked for the job because she genuinely enjoys challenges and completing tasks. She has plenty of time off and gets to just be a dog, too. She plays, gets treats, is given positive reinforcement, has toys, is kept well groomed, receives veterinary care, has lots of physical and mental stimulation, and is extremely socialized.
- Don’t tell someone with an assistance dog that you wish you had one too. That’s the same as saying, “I wish I had some debilitating health problem that makes every day of my life a profound struggle.” They don’t want to hear it, and you don’t wish you needed that sort of help.
- Don’t tell someone with an assistance dog that they’re lucky. Without giving it much thought, it might seem great that the person gets to take their dog everywhere, or that the dog can fly on a plane or stay in a hotel for free. But it’s not easy taking a dog everywhere, and it’s certainly not easy living with the type of disability that make an assistance dog useful.
- But they are lucky! Assistance dogs totally change lives for the people they partner with. They provide amazing companionship, they make so much more independence possible, they take some of the responsibilities off loved ones, they prevent a good deal of pain and suffering, and even save lives!
What to Do in Public
So what does this all mean? You should just ignore a person with a disability and their assistance dog?
Yep! Distracting the dog is dangerous, and it’s safe to assume the stranger is content to go about their business just like everyone else. If you’re in a situation in which you’d say something to another person, then sure, go ahead. But if you want to talk about the dog, the disability, or something you wouldn’t otherwise be saying to another person in line with you (or whatever the case may be), please skip it.