The Etiquette of Meeting Assistance Animals

Posted on December 18, 2009. Filed under: 4. Guest Bloggers | Tags: , , , , |

It’s a given that most people like animals, and animals attract people. It happens everywhere, but throw in the factor of a dog in an environment where dogs are not usually seen, such as a supermarket, restaurant or in an airport or museum. Let’s add one more variable. The dog is working, and it’s doing a job for its owner, an individual with a disability. That owner is dependent on the animal for their mobility, independence, mental or physical health and safety.

I’m not telling the Petopia readers anything they don’t already know but even lifelong dog and cat owners and other animal lovers sometimes have difficulty knowing how to approach a working animal in a public environment.

The most common encounter is harmless and passes immediately. A passerby simply says “Hi puppy,” and moves on, but a few are more eager and want to stop to pet them. Let’s assume that the person just loves animals and wants to say hello. That’s natural. And they respect the individual with the disability who owns the dog. At what point is an approach considered proper? Or safe? Welcome or unwelcome?

So, to clear the air and give both parties the satisfaction they seek and need, I’ll provide a few of the DOs and DON’Ts of meeting Assistance Animals on the job.

DO:

  1. Make sure the situation is a safe one.
  2. Always ask first.
  3. Move slowly.
  4. Allow the dog to be comfortable with you.
  5. Ask the owner about the animal’s training and so on.
  6. Show respect for their disability.

DON’T:

  1. Walk right on and pet the dog/animal.
  2. Sneak up or fail to acknowledge the owner.
  3. Attempt to hold the harness or leash.
  4. Ask the owner for proof of their disability.

Those are the basics. Common sense, most of them. For instance, stopping a blind person in the middle of crossing the street to pet their dog is a major DON’T. So is interfering with the dog’s job or ignoring the owner. But as obvious as those things may be to most of us, believe it or not, most if not all Assistance Animal owners have encountered them more than once.

They are among us. The overenthusiastic, the pushy, the uninformed, the inconsiderate, the oblivious. And if I or the other hundreds of thousands of Assistance Animal owners had a dime for every one we’ve had to deal with, we’d be able to buy our own country.

It all boils down to common sense, which we all know is less than common these days. I’m not saying that everyone who commits the DON’Ts is bad or uncaring. They may just be uninformed. That’s not their fault. It’s the job of the schools, media and the dog owner to educate everyone about the animal’s job and role in their lives. And do it with diplomacy. It’s not always easy, especially when someone cuts in between the owner and the dog and attempts to pet them without acknowledging the owner. If the owner takes the time to explain why what they are doing is wrong and they recognize it, good. But if they continue to ignore or show disrespect for the owner’s presence, then it’s time to be firm and remove the animal. They have lost the honor of meeting them, animal lover or not. Respect goes both ways.

In what circumstances is it okay to approach? In public, if the animal is actually working, under control by the owner, it’s best to wait for a period of inactivity. Stopped at a curb, waiting in line, sitting down. Then approach them and comment. “You have a lovely dog.”

That often breaks the ice. Assistance Animal owners are proud of them and are eager to talk about them. Then, if it seems prudent, ask them if you can pet the dog. “May I meet your dog?”

Let’s add a caveat here. Not all Assistance Animal owners want their animal to be touched. Some prefer not to let them have any contact with others. It may be because they have had a bad experience, have an anxiety disorder or fear the dog being distracted and unable to perform its job. In those instances, the owner may say “I’m sorry but I really don’t want anybody touching him.”

Don’t sweat it. It’s not personal. But those are the exception rather than the rule. I myself am always happy to let people meet and pet my Guide dog Musket, if they ask first and he’s not actually guiding me. If I’m not holding the harness handle, it’s okay to approach. When someone asks to meet him I almost always say “Sure you can meet him. Thanks for asking. His name is Musket.”

Given that everyone is different, some owners may agree or not. I know of one woman wheelchair user with a toy poodle she trained to pick up dropped objects and bring them to her. She’s proud of her dog and is very happy to show her off, but prefers no one actually pet her. And that’s her right.

Another Guide dog owner has a dog, which is easily distracted, sometimes at inappropriate moments, so he is very firm about keeping his dog under control. He only allows people to pet him when he is completely off the harness.

Distractions are a big no-no in working with a Guide dog. And it’s not hard to guess why. The dog is the owner’s eyes. If the dog is assisting their owner across a busy street and someone calls out “Hey, puppy! C’mere, boy!” you can imagine what might happen.  Again, I’m not saying people who do such things are bad, just clueless. And need to be educated. Once in a while in a supermarket I’ll hear a child’s voice saying “Mommy you’re not supposed to pet him. He’s working! You have to ask first!” I feel like cheering when I hear that. That kid gets it.

Okay I’m going to stop preaching now. I’ve always been a keen observer of human nature, blind or not. We are all members of the plethora of mixed nuts in the great trail mix of life. Life with a disability demands a certain amount of flexibility and understanding and above all a sense of humor.
Most people, even the clueless ones are basically nice and don’t mind being shown the true path. To reverse paraphrase what W.C. Fields said, ‘Anyone who loves little kids and dogs can’t be all bad.’

Mark Carlson

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One Response to “The Etiquette of Meeting Assistance Animals”

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I hope the Petopia people won’t mind but the Blog entry was cut short so I’ll add the rest on here.

Distractions are a big no-no in working with a Guide dog. And it’s not hard to guess why. The dog is the owner’s eyes. If the dog is assisting their owner across a busy street and someone calls out “Hey, puppy! C’mere, boy!” you can imagine what might happen.

Again I’m not saying people who do such things are bad, just clueless. And need to be educated. Once in a while in a supermarket I’ll hear a child’s voice saying “Mommy you’re not supposed to pet him. He’s working! You have to ask first!” I feel like cheering when I hear that. That kid gets it.

Okay I’m going to stop preaching now. I’ve always been a keen observer of human nature, blind or not. We are all members of the plethora of mixed nuts in the great trail mix of life. Life with a disability demands a certain amount of flexibility and understanding and above all a sense of humor.
Most people, even the clueless ones are basically nice and don’t mind being shown the true path. To reverse paraphrase what W.C. Fields said, ‘Anyone who loves little kids and dogs can’t be all bad.’


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