The process of getting a service dog is made vastly easier and smoother by the support of family and friends, but their relationship with your service dog can be complicated. Most people see a service dog as still a pet, and it’s important to set clear boundaries for your friends and family to follow in order to ensure your safety and the peace of your household.
First, decide whether you want the public to be able to pet and interact with your service dog. When I first got Rally, I used to let everyone pet him, but as I have grown accustomed to Rally’s presence and indifferent to the smiles and stares, I have become more selective, only allowing people to touch Rally if I am not busy and if he won’t be distracted. A friend of mine has a different approach, requiring a “no touch, no eye contact” rule. It just depends on the handler, the dog’s job, and the situation at hand. Whatever you decide, stick with it.
Once you know what your rule is on public interactions, it’s time to decide how you would like your friends and family to act around your service dog. This can be tricky; most likely you will be spending more time interacting with your friends and family members, and they will want to hug and pet your dog; it’s up to you to decide if that will be distracting and wearisome for both you and your dog. Be clear and set firm rules in a gentle tone.
I personally have two sets of rules for my family to interact with Rally; one for home, the other for public. The home set of rules are more relaxed and enable my parents and sister to feel that Rally is a member of the family. They can pet and play with him, and treat him like a regular dog.
However, once we exit the front door and Rally’s vest comes on, the public rules kick into gear. Now Rally is off limits. No touching or talking to him. My Mum especially has trouble with this rule; she adores Rally and loves to stroke his ears and scratch his head, which is fine in private, but in public, especially when I have a “no touch” rule for bystanders, it can undermine Rally’s status as a service dog and distract him from his work.
You might find that while your friends and family love to pet and praise your dog in the privacy of their own homes, they are uncomfortable with you bringing your service dog everywhere with you. My parents don’t understand much about service access laws, and aren’t used to walking calmly into a restaurant with a dog leashed to their hip, so sometimes they suggest ideas or give advice that seems right to them but is impractical or wrong for me. My parents will suggest that I leave Rally at home if we are going to the movie theaters, or they become flustered when I walk towards the elevator at the shopping mall. They think the “do not pet” patch on the back of his vest is mean, and scowl when I deny someone their request to interact with Rally. They don’t understand my frustrations or applause at certain public access laws, nor do they fully comprehend how exhausting it can be to always have a dog with you.
The bottom line is know your service dog, know your limitations, and know your rules. You alone know what is best for your dog. If you require a corner seat at a restaurant, request it. If you know your dog can sit through a two hour movie with gunshots and car crashes, then go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do with your service dog. Be confident, set the rules, and lead the way. Your friends and family will follow.