Dinning with a Service Dog

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With a service dog, eating out requires an extra step. When I got Rally, I said farewell to spur of the moment, “let’s grab a bite to eat” decisions, and even much-anticipated date nights at restaurants detailed a series of extra steps. Normally, when I went out to a restaurant, I could walk straight in, have a seat wherever I pleased, linger over my food and leave after a leisurely desert. With a service dog, however, it becomes a bit more complicated.

I walk and feed Rally about an hour before leaving the house. I make certain that he is groomed and clean, his fur brushed and his vest on. I usually bring him a jacket just in case the restaurant is air conditioned or we sit outside. If I’m anticipated a lengthy, three course meal, I’ll also bring his pad, which has some cushion for his injured hip and ensures his comfort throughout the night. Then there’s the collapsible bowl for water and the short traffic lead and the longer leash I fasten to the table leg just in case the world ends and he jumps to his feet. Then, and only then, are we ready to hop into the car. 

At the restaurant, we are usually welcomed with smiles at the sight of Rally. Rally’s calm bearing and behavior, combined with my own friendly attitude, often assures the staff instantly that we are in fact, allowed. Handlers who are hesitant at the door, look around furtively or haul their rambunctious dogs along are easy targets for the restaurant staff. Only once have I ever been asked “is that your service dog”, to which I am only too happy to confirm that yes, Rally is in fact a service dog, and then there is never any trouble. 

Seating can be a challenge though, especially if the restaurant is busy or small. I usually request a table at the back or in a corner, where Rally can stretch out at my side. This way Rally can stay out of range of feet and passing dinners, and I can get some privacy as I eat. I’ve found it very distracting to try and enjoy an evening of good food when I’m being asked about my service dog by curious folk, so I’m grateful whenever a kind waiter sits Rally and me in a far corner away from curious eyes.

Rally knows the drill; a point will send him straight to his cushion. He usually lays his head down on my foot while I eat. Halfway through my meal I’ll fill his bowl of water for him. 

Living with a service dog requires a handler to form a double-focus on life; one eye on your world, the other on your dog. Was that nudge an alert or a head scratch? Was he limping? Does he look tired or hungry? Is he heeling politely at your side? It took me a while to learn to be aware of Rally and my surroundings at the same time, and eating is no different. Even when deep in conversation with my companion, I will always have an ear attuned to Rally. Every shift he makes, every sigh or glance in my direction is noted and cataloged. Because restaurants are one of the most distracting environments for a dog, I especially want to ensure that he is a polite, perfect example of a service animal, so I have spent hours of training ensuring that when we are eating, he is a model citizen.  He knows never to groan, whine, get up or stare at my food. A dog could walk past his nose, a hamburger could fall on his head, and he remains patiently waiting. 

It’s ridiculously easy to spot fake service dogs at a restaurant. You’d think that people bringing their fake service dog into an establishment that serves food and is full of people packed into a tight space, might realize that is the absolute worse place to put their poor pet on the spot and attempt to pass him off as a service dog, but they do so with amusing and alarming frequency. Pets masquerading as service dogs will often be sitting upright or standing impatiently at their owner’s feet, begging for food and actively attentive to morsels. They will sniff loudly and their eyes will bug out. They might even bark or draw attention to themselves in an effort to get food. I’ve seen every breed of pet wearing a service dog vest, begging shamelessly, barking, urinating and misbehaving shamefully at a restaurant, while the waiter glares helplessly on, frustrated that he can do nothing to dispute the “oh, yeah, it’s my service dog” quip from the customer. 

I have grown thick skin towards the public, but people with their “service dogs” really annoy me. It’s just not fair to drag poor Fido into Burger King or a steak house, drag him through the chaos of  smells and fallen food, shove him under a table and expect him to stay quiet and unobtrusive at your feet. People notice when your dog misbehaves in public-and they especially take note when your dog has a service vest strapped on! Service dogs undergo years of training to get them able to calmly walk through a restaurant, curl up on the ground, ignore the french fry or steak sauce inches from their noses, remain serene and motionless until their hander is finished with their meal, and then walk away from all that delicious food. It takes a ton of work, so my friendly advice is don’t try it with a pet!

At home after a restaurant, I often treat Rally to a short, brisk walk around the block or a run in the dog park as a reward for behaving in such a distracting environment. I usually wipe his coat down with a damp cloth, as lying on a restaurant floor can get him smelling like french fry grease, and then it’s off to bed!

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