Assistance Dogs 101

Brianna Bell

My Assistance Dog is medical equipment
If you wouldn’t freak out when someone went past you in a wheelchair, don’t freak out when I go past you with my dog. He may be the only dog you see that day, but you won’t be the only person who makes a scene over him. Every time you call out to a Service Dog, they get distracted from the job they’re doing. Depending on what service the dog provides, that distraction is at best an inconvenience, and at worst deadly.

Speak to the handler not the dog
If you encounter a service dog team, please speak to the handler not the dog! Basically, treat the handler as you would any other person — if you wouldn’t interrupt someone without a dog in that situation, don’t do it just because they have a service dog with them. Sometimes I just want to get a coffee without having twenty people ask me what breed he is.

Not speaking to an Assistance Dog includes things like making kissing noises or anything else like that at them. My dog is trained to perform a lot of tasks and behaviours in response to both verbal and physical cues. That can be as small as me clicking my tongue to let him know that we’re working, or as big as gesturing that it’s playtime. That means that when you make noises or gesture at him, he thinks you’re asking him to do something and starts focusing on you instead of his job.

There’s nothing quite as distracting when I’m trying to get to work as my dog suddenly playing dead because he thinks that’s what the person next to him in the elevator is asking for.

Don’t ask what assistance the dog provides
If my Assistance Dog and I are entering your venue, you have the right to ask us to identify ourselves, but that does not include any information about my medical conditions or what services my dog provides. We are obliged to show my identity card, and my dog has to be wearing an identifying coat/harness, but that’s it. It is incredibly invasive to ask what my dog does for me, and even beyond that, it is really inconvenient when people are constantly stopping me to talk about my dog.

Please save the touching for dogs who aren’t wearing vests!

My Assistance Dog is a no-touch zone
My Assistance Dog is an extension of me in many ways, so just like you shouldn’t go around touching strangers, you shouldn’t touch my Assistance Dog. He gets lots of time to be a regular dog, and make friends with both humans and other dogs, but the time for that is not when he is in his vest. Just like speaking to them, touching an Assistance Dog is a huge distraction. I might be on my way to a meeting when I need my dog to lie quietly next to me, but if you make him think it is playtime neither he nor I will be able to sit through that meeting. Even if he does keep his cool that day, the more people interact with him while he is working, the more likely it is that he will begin to confuse “on-duty” (and the standard of behaviour that requires) with “off-duty”.

Please don’t ask if you can have a pat or cuddle, because it is exhausting to have to reject these requests. If it is time for him to have cuddles with my friends, family, or strangers on the street, I will take his vest off (just like when he goes to the dog off leash area!).

It’s often much easier to train food-motivated dogs, so A LOT of Assistance Dogs really love their tucker.

Don’t feed the gremlin after midnight
Actually, just don’t feed an Assistance Dog ever, no matter how much cuter than a gremlin it may be. Food is just about the biggest distraction you could offer my Assistance Dog, so please don’t. He’s like a toddler with candy, and already gets plenty of food at home!

A relaxed dog is just an extra cute working dog — not one that can suddenly be patted.

A napping dog is not necessarily off duty
One of the first and most important tasks an Assistance Dog will learn is to relax next to its handler. If I could nap at work and still do my job I totally would, so why shouldn’t my Assistance Dog? He is still ready to respond as soon as he hears one of his cues, so if you take his nap as an opportunity to interact with him, we run into all of those same problems from earlier.

Inform the handler if the dog approaches you
An essential pre-requisite of any Assistance Dog is that it enjoys human companionship. While some prefer the company of their handler, many are intensely social creatures. That means that sometimes, even when you are doing everything right, they might get distracted and approach you. If that happens, please alert their handler if they have not already noticed, as they will usually need to ask their dog to focus back on them and the task at hand.

Every Assistance Dog is different
Just like every person is unique, no two Assistance Dogs are the same. Each one has its own personality, tasks, and relationship with its handler. My Assistance Dog wakes me up by 7am every morning because he wants to watch the birds from the front deck before it gets too hot. I know another Assistance Dog that loves sleep so much his handler has to wake him up three stops before theirs so that he’s ready to lead her off the bus. Neither of those behaviours makes them any less capable of doing their jobs extremely well.

I’d rather not need a service dog but having one increases my independence, and means that I can now do things that I couldn’t do without him. He’s so much more than just a pet that I happen to take to work with me, and it’s so important that he is allowed to do his job to the best of his ability. By following this advice, you’re helping to make that possible.

Author’s note: Assistance Dog laws (and even terminology!) vary from state to state in Australia — especially ID requirements — but the basic etiquette for being around Assistance Dogs is generally the same. This article isn’t intended to override what an AD handler has told you, it is to supplement your knowledge so that handlers don’t need to take time out of their regular day unless they want to. To find out more about the legal differences from state to state, you can check out more information here:

Brianna Bell

Written by

Disability activist, sixth year law student, Assistance Dog handler (and photographer). T: @briannasbell. F: @KirbyTheAD.

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