Many great articles have been posted recently about how the public should behave around service dogs. As a trainer for Paws Assisting Veterans (PAVE), I would like to add some perspective from another vantage point. I speak out to bring awareness to the plight of our American heroes who now have hope and a sense of independence because of their service dogs. I want to explain how you can help and show support.
A highly trained service dog, such as those provided by PAVE, is one that has had approximately 2 years of intense training to provide for and support the needs of his/her veteran. They have been trained to perform specific tasks to help the particular disabilities of each individual. Service dogs, while living a dream life of always being alongside their person…are not pets. They are not supposed to be soliciting attention from the public or seeking play with other dogs on the street. In order to perform their job they must be constantly tuned in to the needs of their handler. Unfortunately, many folks actually distract the dog from its work by eye contact, talking, petting, etc. They begin talking in high tones to the dog and reaching to touch, despite the signs on the service dog vest and leash, making the veteran even more anxious. Since dogs react positively to praise and human affection, a dog may actually start seeking attention from the public which might seriously hinder its ability to perform as a service dog.
For a veteran, their service dog becomes their lifeline to the outside world, enabling them to gradually integrate back into society. The last thing they desire is to draw attention to themselves, let alone be constantly explaining to people that their dog cannot engage. In addition, most of those affected by PTSD don’t feel comfortable with strangers in close proximity, pressing the issue.
Another way to look at a service dog s is that it is an extension of the man or woman they are working with. The service dog is every bit as important to that person’s life as a wheelchair is to another. When the public distracts assistance dogs from their work it is like putting a banana peel under the wheel of someone’s walker.
It must be mentioned that oftentimes the worst offenders are extended family or acquaintances who feel the rules of etiquette do not apply to them! In addition, a veteran can become horrified when an uninformed business owner or person of authority challenges them on their legal rights to have a dog in public places. Conversely, It is so wonderful when people in the stores say a kind, respectful word to our veterans while holding back from petting and greeting the dog. We are also so grateful for the young parents we hear telling their children that the service dog is working while teaching them to keep a distance. Hopefully, proper education about service dogs will be the norm in the future and a way that we can show honor and gratitude to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for us.
Cheryl Mulick, CPDT
Paws Assisting Veterans