You’re in the grocery store picking up some essentials when you see him. A golden retriever in a Service Dog vest. The groceries don’t matter anymore. You just want to give this adorable dog all the pets. You make your way to the beautiful good boy with his perfect inside manners and staying right by his owner’s side. When you get closer, your heart breaks. On his vest reads: “DO NOT PET.” But why?
Service dogs are highly trained animals meant to perform a specific task for their owners. These tasks can include guiding blind owners and aiding wheelchair bound people. Not all disabilities are so recognizable. Service dogs can also detect when a person with epilepsy might go into a seizure, alert a person with PTSD of an oncoming episode, alert a diabetic of threatening low blood sugar, and so much more.
Why can’t we pet them?
When you see a service dog in public, that dog is working. Service dogs are essential to the health of the dog’s owner. Distracting a working dog endangers the life of the owner, like in this instance. Interfering with a dog’s ability to perform his or her task is not only putting the owner at risk, but it’s also illegal. You can distract a service dog in ways other than petting. No distractions means no petting, whistling, talking to, or any other attempt to gain the dog’s attention.
What else are we doing wrong?
Distracting service dogs in public is only one of the issues service dogs and their owners face daily.
Untrained animals interfering with service dogs
Online certifications for Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs is becoming an increasing trend. Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, are prescribed support animals for people with a diagnosed disorder or disability. However, training is not required for ESAs, only a letter from a medical professional. Therefore, ESAs are not permitted public access. ESAs have housing rights and accommodations on flights.
Misunderstanding this lack of public accessibility leads to owners bringing untrained animals into public places and causing a disruption. Even worse, some animals end up barking at or attacking service dogs. By causing these disruptions, business owners become much more wary of animals entering their businesses and results in people with real disabilities being stopped and questioned relentlessly.
The only questions people with service dogs are required to answer are:
- Do you need the animal because of a disability?
- What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?
That’s it. No asking for papers, licensing, or anything else. Asking more than these two questions interferes with a person’s privacy rights. However, limiting questions can make it easier for people to slap a cheap “service dog” vest they bought online on their untrained pet and bring the pooch into public. While faking service dogs is illegal, the enforcement of these laws is difficult. And even if people with fake service dogs are penalized, their actions still complicate and endanger the lives of people with disabilities.
How Can I Help?
- Don’t distract a service dog in any way. If you want to pet their dog, you can always ask at appropriate times, but be respectful if the owner declines.
- Leave your pets at home. I know we all love our furry friends dearly, but bringing pets in public risks their safety as well as the safety of others. Even a well-trained pet can lose their cool when faced with unfamiliar situations such as a person in a wheelchair or children approaching them in a rough manner. Your pets and service dogs would all feel better if you left Fido at home.
- Do not question a person’s disability. Even if a person doesn’t visibly seem disabled, that doesn’t mean their disability is not real. People with service dogs face verbal attacks and discrimination regularly.
The best thing you can do is educate yourself. The best way to respect other people is to understand them. If you don’t live with a disability or know someone with one, it’s easy to be ignorant about the adversity that people with disabilities face daily. However, once you recognize your ignorance, it’s important to ask questions. By understanding the lives of people with disabilities and service dogs, we can make sure we never risk another person or animal’s safety.