Nowadays most people have heard a few dozen times how important it is not to pet, play with, or otherwise distract a service dog in public. However, there often is little guidance past that one stipulation and it can be slightly awkward for everyone involved when people see a dog in public and aren't sure how they are supposed to react.
So ... How are you supposed to react when you see a service dog nearby?
Most people have heard of service dogs and are aware of the type of work they do, but it can still be interesting (or startling) to turn the corner in the grocery store and suddenly come across a 70lb labrador sitting on the floor. You know you're not supposed to distract the dog, but can't help watching it (I mean how often do you see a dog in your grocery store) or wondering, should I offer to help the person with the dog? Are they allowed to have the dog in the store? Will the dog try to steal the food off the shelves? Should I let them go in front of me in line? Should I pretend the dog isn't there or can I ask to pet it?
One of the best things to remember when you see a service dog in the store is:
Acknowledge the person, not the dog.
This is the easiest way to avoid distracting the dog or make the person with a service dog feel uncomfortable. Yes, it is strange to see a dog in the store, but people with service dogs are often stared at all the time, everywhere they go, which can get a little tedious. So a good rule of thumb, is that if you would "ignore" that person if they didn't have a dog, then continue "ignoring" them even if they do. If you would stop and interact with them (to ask the time, get directions, or compliment them on their sweater) if they didn't have a dog, then go right ahead and still interact with them as you would have even if they do have a dog next to them.
A few answers to the specific thoughts you may have...
- Are they allowed to have the dog in the store? Probably yes, but even if they aren't, it isn't your responsibility to handle that situation. So unless the dog is actively threatening you or somebody else, then you can just keep going about with your day and there is no need to watch their every move. (I once had a dog sitting next to me in the mall with me and ended up with a group of people literally standing around me just staring- I'm pretty sure they thought I was a street performer or something about to do tricks with my dog. Please don't be that person waiting for a show from the service dog)
- Should I offer to help the person with the dog? If it looks like they might need help, then help them. Our social guideline is that you should offer a lending hand or nice word to anybody who looks like they could use it at that moment, and people with service dogs are no exception. However somebody having a service dog does not necessarily mean they need (or that you should feel obligated to give them) significant help or accomodations.
-Will the dog eat things off the shelves? If it is a well-trained service dog, then no. But it is still a living animal and (particularly for dogs in training) bad days with mistakes, do occasionally happen. Either way it can be embarrassing and awkward to the person with the dog to have you watching and waiting for their dog to make a mistake, so try to go about your business without staring at them. Be understanding or offer to help if there is a problem.
- Should I pretend the dog isn't there? No. There is no need to pretend the dog isn't there, or to hush your child in embarassment if they comment about a dog being in the store; however you also don't need to go out of your way to acknowledge the dog either. Most people I know with service dogs, tend to appreciate the short but sweet compliment towards their dog, the same way they would if you stopped to compliment them about something else.
-Can I ask to pet it? Yes, you can. But keep in mind that every dog and person is different and many of them may say no (for a variety of very real reasons which they may or may not give you) and you need to respect that. Do not argue with them about it and certainly do not reach out and pet the dog (even if it is looking at you or wagging it's tail) after they have told you no. If they say yes, then be respectful of their time and space by quietly petting the dog for a moment or two, saying thank you, and then moving on with your day. Teach your children (by words and action) that you must ALWAYS ask permission before petting somebody's dog (regardless of whether it is a dog walking past your house or a service dog in the grocery store)
-Can I ask them questions about service dogs? Yes and no. There is nothing wrong with asking a question about a service dog, but (speaking from personal experience) it often can take double the time to run errands when you have a dog because so many people want to stop and start a conversation with you. Conversations about service dogs, pet dogs, therapy dogs, volunteering, puppy raising, disabilities and everything in between. I, as a trainer (who can choose to leave my dog at home if I am in a hurry) often have more patience for this than people with working service dogs. It can get a little tiresome if every single time you went to the grocery store you were stopped by complete strangers who wanted to have a 15 minute coversation with you about dogs; so be respectful of people's time and space and maybe save general questions/comments for places like this blog :)
On that last topic, I would also like to give a friendly reminder that people who need a service dog, need it for a reason. And often, though not always, that reason is because getting through day-to-day life is particularly difficult for that individual. What may seem like a meaningless question or interaction to you, is something which could be either greatly appreciated by the individual, or be something which causes major stress and anxiety; and there is no way to tell by looking at somebody which it will be. This is not to say you should avoid interacting with somebody who has a dog, but simply a reminder to be respectful and understanding in your interactions with them.
We hope this answered a few of your questions and may make your next interaction with a service dog slightly less awkward (for you or the person with the dog). We have a few posts left in our series, so keep the questions coming!
Questions about service dogs? Send them our way, and we'll answer them in an upcoming post!
(No worries, we'll keep your question anonymous and won't use your contact information for any further correspondence unless you ask us to! )