Be a positive part of a service dogs on going training
First, I want to say that service dogs are ALWAYS in training. They are always learning something new, and the handler needs for that something to be positive and for the mutual benefit of the dog and the person is serves. Once a dog begins their “service dog” training, they continue to learn until they are retired.
Often times, the easiest way to ease into interaction with someone who is disabled, is to start being sociable with their service dog or start a conversation about their dog. That is a wonderful gesture. I praise you and want to encourage your efforts, however, there are a few things you should know. I want your social interaction with people with disabilities and their service dogs productive for all, so you can have a positive experience and avoid some common mis-understandings.
People with disabilities are amazing people and you will be blessed to include them as your friends. First, it is important to understand that a service dog is not just your ordinary pet type dog. It is a working dog, with a job. They have been, or are in the process of being, specially trained to help the individual they serve, with what ever tasks of daily living their handler requires assistance with. When a service dog is at home, they are on call to help whenever needed. At home they do get time to just be a dog, but when they are in public and dressed for work; wearing their vest, harness, backpack or other equipment, they are always on the job, even when they don’t appear to be. When they are working in public, their focus has to be on their handler, at all times. Only when their handler gives them permission, are they allowed to interact socially with those around them. For this reason, it is important that you approach the handler directly, and do not acknowledge the dog. Introduce yourself and always ask the handler, not the dog, if you may pet their dog. Do not reach out to the dog, but wait for instructions from their handler. Equally important it that you not excite the dog, pet the dog briskly as if in play, or talk to the dog in an excited tone of voice. Then dog needs to remain calm and submissive. Follow the handlers instructions and understand 'how you do - what you do' can damage or benefit the dog's ongoing training.
The service dog is also a very loyal protector, who may perceive your approach incorrectly, due to possible lack of experience on the dogs part and/or miscommunication on your part. Direct eye contact with a persons’ service dog could be mistaken for a challenge or threat. Approach the person with a service dog and not the dog. Wait for the handler to give you instructions on how to approach their dog. They will prepare their service dog and give them permission to say, “Hi” to you; perhaps allowing you to pet the dog or perhaps not. It all depends on the level of training the service dog is at, the dogs’ mental state at the time and how comfortable the handler is with the situation. If the dog is anxious or misbehaving, it is not a good time, because petting the dog at this time will encourage and reinforce an unwanted behavior or state of mind. It takes more to retrain a service dog out of an undesirable behavior or bad experience, than it does to do it correctly the first time. You want the dog to have a positive experience with you and you want to have a positive experience with the person they serve.
There is a proper way to pet a service dog, but each dog is an individual and the handler knows how best to do this. Quickly reaching your hand out toward a dogs face or over its’ head is an act of aggression, from the dogs perspective. The service dog must be taught under controlled conditions and by repetition, to accept this movement around it’s head. They need to have time to practice accepting it, from many different people, until they develop a positive conditioned response. This is where you can provide a valuable and necessary contribution to the continued training of the service dog; successful training could not proceed without you. You want to be a positive part of this interaction and not cause a training setback for the service dog. This is a “dog”, and the worst possible thing that could happen would be for the dog to be startled or mistake your intentions, nip or even bite your hand, and then be destroyed, because it bit someone. Not only is a service dog considered durable medical equipment, but the person that dog serves would loose their very best friend and helper, just because of a miscommunication. Momma always said, “Do not pet strange dogs”, and she was right. We don’t approach people we don’t know and put our hands on their face, without an invitation. That would be considered a violation of their personal space and rude. The same social rules apply for approaching a service dog.
Training a service dog takes commitment, time, exposure to new situations and repetition. They don’t suddenly and miraculously become a perfectly well behaved dog, that is quiet and under control in all situations. It is up to the handler to correct the dog whenever they behave in a way that is not appropriate or is unsafe; for the dog, the public or the handler. Do not comfort, console or excuse the dogs’ behavior. This confuses the dog with a mixed message, because their handler is correcting them and you are telling them it’s okay. If this happens too often, the service dog can become unsure, insecure and mentally unstable. This would be a disservice to both the disabled person and their service dog. Just wait for the handler to get their dog under control, both physically and mentally, and they will tell you when it is a good time interact with their dog again. In this way, the dog learns that they get praise and pet when they are on their best behavior in public. You can help to reinforce that lesson. The key with any social interaction is respect.
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