Asking Questions About Service Dogs

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I love my dog. I will happily talk about Rally and discuss his latest achievements and accomplishments with a tree stump. I’m not sure how my boyfriend can still sit in the car and nod and smile and listen without bailing when I discuss the latest service dog laws or rage at social injustice. I know I’d jump out of the moving car window or hum very loudly if someone talked about a subject as often as I talk about Rally, but that’s what happens when your health depends on something; you get obsessed.

As a handler, I receive tons of questions every single day about Rally from curious bystanders, from what breed he is to his function in my life. This gives me the opportunity to educate people about service dogs, explain their various tasks and purposes, and outline some of the service dog laws. However, there are some questions that should not be asked, especially not to a service dog handler.

“What’s wrong with you?” is my least favorite question. Every single person who legally and honestly has a service animal is disabled in some shape, way or form. That’s why they need a service animal. Often, the reasons are medical and deeply personal. They involve painful memories and intense emotions. By answering the question, “what’s wrong with you?” the handler exposes a part of themselves that is private, and absolutely none of the stranger’s business. As a handler, when I get asked, “what’s wrong with you?”, I have to fight to remain calm and polite. Even now, as I write, I must fight the urge to rant and rave, but then that would be unprofessional and biased, and my goal of writing this is to educate people on what not to ask and what to ask handlers. So, “what’s wrong with you?” is off the table as rude and prying.  Instead, first scan the dog’s vest for clues. “Hearing Aid”, “Medical Alert” or “See Eye Dog” patches could answer your questions in a more discrete way. Also, keep an eye out for patches that read “do not pet” or “ask to pet”, as these mean very different things and will give a clue as how the handler will react when you ask if you can pet their service dog.

“You have such a well trained dog,” is always a pleasant interlude into a sentence, but when followed quickly by, “I wish my dog could go everywhere with me too,” it can become an irritating nightmare. So you wish that your dog could go into movie theaters and shopping malls and grocery stores with you too? So you wish that you were just like me and had a disability? So you wish that you were disabled? It’s not a good conversation to have, and it makes handlers very uncomfortable, so be safe and stop the sentence after, “you have such a well trained dog”.

Just as there are some questions that should never be voiced, there are some very important questions to ask yourself and the handler before approaching a service team. First, ask yourself, “Is this a good time to approach the team?” They might be in the middle of a task, or they might look exhausted, or they might be blissfully decompressing with a cup of coffee after a long day at work. Even if they look relaxed and unoccupied, remember to approach calmly and make eye contact. If they don’t smile back or look interested, then just nod politely and move on. Always wait for the handler to initiate conversation or greeting.

If you would like to interact with the dog, another important question to ask the handler is, “may I pet your dog?”  Do not be annoyed or taken aback if your request is gently denied. But, if you ask politely, most handlers will allow you to briefly pet their dog.

Once you and the handler are having a conversation, it is up to your discretion to voice any further questions that you might have, such as “where was your dog trained?” and “how long did the training take?” or any other such questions. Personally, if I’m not in a hurry, I’ll take the time to answer any questions that are asked in a polite, respectful manner, even ones about the cost of training Rally. Also keep in mind that while meeting a service dog might be a huge event in your day, the handler probably faces dozens of questions a day concerning their dog, so if they are short or brief with you, don’t take it personally.

The most important thing to remember when interacting with service dog teams, is that they are humans, so be polite and respectful, and you and the handler will have a rewarding experience. So, the next time you see a team, scan the dog’s vest, ascertain if it would be appropriate for you to interact with the pair, and enrich both your life and the team’s.

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