Written by Jennifer Decker
After eleven years of partnership with my first, and now retired, service dog, Orbit, I recently welcomed her successor, 2.5 year old Spruce. The two dogs, both of whom were trained by Paws With A Cause, are adjusting to one another, and I’m getting used to being a dog mom of two. As Spruce and I are working towards public access, I find myself increasingly aware of the importance of education related to service dogs. Just as I’ve spent the last handful of years learning and adjusting to navigating life with a service dog, I believe that encountering a service dog can be a learning opportunity for the public as well.
For anyone who is considering partnership with a service dog, frequently interacts with a service dog, or is merely curious, I present the top three things I’ve learned about life with a service dog:
- Service Dogs Aren’t Perfect
Although service dogs are extremely well trained, they are still dogs! Just like all of us have “off” days. If you happen to see a service dog looking longingly at you in a store, or even tugging at their leash, they are working against their innate desire to be social. Similarly, a food driven dog may misbehave and snag a piece of candy off the floor, even though they know they should not. Please do not automatically assume that the dog is untrained.
I was mortified the first time Orbit misbehaved in public, because I expected her to be perfect. It took time and a number of reminders before I realized that, while chronic misbehavior is problematic, a minor indiscretion isn’t the end of the world.
- Curiosity is Natural
Once I was out in the community with a dog, I learned quickly that people are very curious when they encounter a service dog. Well-meaning individuals in a store, restaurant, bank, etc. will want to ask questions, which for the most part, is fine with me. I’ve developed strategies for interactions related to Orbit, and I hope that similar strategies are effective with Spruce as well. I’m less likely to want to stop and chat if my dog is having an off day or if I am in a hurry to finish errands. I’ve learned that my dog tends to be very responsive when people are excited to engage with her, so I’m much more likely to converse with someone who is calm. When I meet kids who would really love to pet Orbit, but struggle to understand why I have to say no, I might drop my keys on the floor, and demonstrate how a service dog can retrieve them. In my opinion, natural curiosity about service dogs and asking about them is fine, as long as the limits set by the handler are respected.
- Service Dogs are Protected Under the ADA
As part of a service dog placement, Paws with a Cause is very thorough in teaching their clients about their legal rights. Service dogs and their handlers are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). While the ADA is clear that no one can ask the handler about their disability, it states that two questions can be asked:
- Is this a service dog?
- What tasks is the dog trained to perform?
People are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t mind being asked these questions, and often would prefer to be asked more frequently. While this isn’t the case for everyone, I appreciate it for the fact that it shows awareness of the rights of service dog teams.
Both Orbit and Spruce play a major role in enhancing my independence, and there have been many lessons learned along the way. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share just a few of these lessons with a wider audience in recognition of Service Dog Awareness Month.