My Dog is Working Right Now
She’s cute, and her eyes are so soulful. And yet, I ask you to ignore her. It’s because those soulful eyes are working for me and keeping us both safe. It’s usually common knowledge that you shouldn’t pet a guide dog, but what is the real reason? And is it enough to just refrain from petting a working guide dog?
For the majority of my life, I have had the privilege of navigating the physical world around me with the assistance of a guide dog. I make the distinction of the dog assisting me because the handler (me) and the dog work in tandem, as a team. Despite what some may think, guide dogs do not read traffic patterns or traffic lights, and showing them a map is certainly not going to help either of us. However, there is one very imperative thing that can help, and that is if people completely ignore a working guide dog.
Since I work primarily with a guide dog, the wisdom I am about to impart is directly related to guide dogs. That said, quite often, the please ignore my working dog applies to all working dogs; regardless of their job.
Service Animal Etiquette: It’s About Safety
Having worked with a guide dog for the better part of my life, I have had countless experiences with people not understanding the necessity of ignoring a working guide dog. The problem lies in a lot of the messaging circulating about working dogs.
Most of the signs on dogs’ equipment read: Please don’t pet me.
But these signs leave out the real request: Please Do Not Distract This Dog!
Distraction is everything from petting, to feeding, or even making eye contact. What it really boils down to is ignoring the fact that the dog exists at all. Sounds cruel, right? But for who: you or the dog?
While I was a Student
When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I had a little firecracker of a Black Labrador whose job was to help me get around safely. Her job included working on the university campus, city streets, malls, and even in foreign countries. She never ceased to amaze me at how beautifully, more often than not, she ignored distractions tossed her way. And, I mean literally tossed her way.
Please Do Not Feed My Dog
One day while walking to class, another student threw a piece of pizza at my dog while she worked. Apparently, the student thought the dog was hungry and needed an afternoon snack. However, the consequence of the pizza throwing was that I tripped over my dog which could have hurt her or me and then I had to correct her for reaching for the pizza.
In this instance, who suffered more from the distraction? My dog did. This is the real reason to avoid distracting a working guide dog: not only for the handler’s safety, but mostly for the dog’s sake. Enticing her with treats when she’s not supposed to have them is frankly just mean.
If you are a parent and someone feeds your child randomly, how comfortable are you with this action? So, the next time you are tempted to hand a working dog a french fry( and yes, it has happened!), don’t do it. The dog is probably eating better food than you are. It seems mean, but the rule is in place for the dog’s benefit.
What Defines a Service Animal?
What the ADA Says
As of March 15, 2011, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) only recognized dogs as Service Animals in the United States.
According to the ADA, a Service Animal is a dog who has been trained in a specific task to assist a person with a disability.
The ADA outlines not only the rights of the person with a disability working with a Service Animal, but it also clearly defines the responsibilities. Service Animals, such as guide dogs, must always be under control of their handler. If this stipulation is not adhered to, the dog can be denied access from the public space.
Distracted Service Animals
Distracting a Service Animal, whether it be by throwing food or petting her, could cause the dog to behave poorly; potentially leading to the dog being asked to leave the premises. Such a scenario would cause undue stress for both the handler and the dog; especially since dogs are ultimately the ones who decide whether they work or not.
This is probably a foreign concept in some ways, but if you’ve ever had close contact with a guide dog, you would know that there is no way of forcing a dog to guide a person. Yes, the dogs are incredibly friendly, but this quality serves a purpose.
If the dogs didn’t have a gentle demeanor they would be difficult to keep under control out in public, and would not be able to perform their jobs successfully. Consequently, the dogs are sweet for a reason, but it’s not so that people can distract them. In fact, it’s all the more reason not to. The dogs love their job and distracting them places undue stress on the dog.
If the emotional logic doesn’t appeal to you, let’s talk numbers. On average, training a guide dog costs $50,000.00.
That money is generated through donations, fundraising efforts, and partnerships. This cost only applies to the first sixteen to twenty-two months of the dog’s life. After that, quite often, the dog’s cost is covered by the handler.
Every Dog Loves Attention – Service Animals Are Doing an Important Job
There are less extreme examples of distracting a guide dog than throwing food in their direction. Petting or making kissy-faces are just as detrimental. A guide dog who is given that kind of attention, no matter if it’s one smoochy face or ten, gets used to receiving that kind of attention.
When the dog hears noises or someone pets her while walking by, she becomes distracted and loses focus. Handlers have twisted ankles stepping off curbs, fallen down flights of stairs or gone the wrong direction down a street because their dog was distracted by a drive-by pet.
A twisted ankle isn’t ideal, but neither is tripping and landing on the dog.
Dogs have had to return to schools for intensive retraining because of distraction issues. Some have had to retire long before retirement age. It is an emotional roller coaster for the handler, as well as the dog, and those dollar signs only increase when a dog retires early or returns for retraining. The rule of not distracting a working guide dog is really, at the heart of it, for the dog’s well-being.
Talking to, feeding, petting (including drive-by petting), kissy faces/noises, and eye contact are all considered forms of distraction for a service animal. The easiest way around this is to ignore that the dog exists completely. Next time you are tempted to reach your hand towards a working dog, just don’t do it. Remember that not distracting the dog is the best thing you can do for it.
Respect for the Handler and their Animal
If you’re a person who just loves dogs so much, and the close proximity of those adorable floppy ears makes it difficult to control yourself, here’s an alternative to being a doggy-distraction: ask the handler to tell you about their dog. Most handlers will be happy to discuss their dog, if they aren’t in a hurry to get somewhere. This is a perfect way to show admiration for the dogs we all love so much, while remaining respectful of the working relationship between the dog and their handler.
By Jessica Tuomela|Everyday Accessibility
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Jessica Tuomela holds a MSW, is a world traveller and is also Paralympian in the Canadian National Team. She has had a vision impairment since the age of 2. She holds world records in swimming and track. Jessica is a passionate advocate for the disabled community demonstrating that disabilities are not an impediment to leading an extraordinary life of accomplishment.