Three Things to Know About Service Dogs

I’m delighted that this guest blog post comes from Alex Bocian an educator who I had the pleasure of meeting at #SHAPETampa. My conversation with him was one of the highlights of the week for me as we talked about service dogs, their training and the roles that they can play for their handlers. It was fascinating, I learned a great deal, and I’ve been hoping that Alex would share some words of wisdom for us, and boy has he delivered? Read, and enjoy.

As a service dog owner and handler, I experience hundreds of interactions daily with the public. After reflecting on my experiences both positive and negative, I have selected 3 things I would like to share regarding service dogs and their handlers.

3 Things to remember regarding service dogs and their handlers.

  1. Service dogs perform a variety of tasks related to a person’s disability. It is important to be mindful that this can look different for each and every person depending on their individual need.

Service dogs can be trained to assist in a variety of tasks related to mobility, medical alert, visual assistance, hearing service, psychiatric service, and many more based on the need of the handler. Some examples of specific tasks that service dogs can perform are guiding the blind, alerting an individual of a seizure or panic attack, alerting an individual with a hearing impairment of a noise such as a siren, reminding an individual to take their prescription medication, or even pushing buttons, turning on lights or retrieving needed items. Although this list is not exhaustive, service dogs come in all shapes and sizes and possess a unique skill set specific to the needs of their handler.

  1. Service dogs are not required by law to wear any type of vest or identification. This means that any dog you may see in public could be working. Best practice is to ask the handler before approaching the dog or trying to pet the animal.

As stated in number 1, service dogs can be trained to perform a variety of tasks related to a person’s disability. Not every service dog handler wants to publicize that they are a person with a disability. Having a service dog wearing a red vest that says “Service Dog” is a clear sign that a person has a disability. Some handlers have service animals that when pet do not interfere with their task whereas distracting others could be putting the handler’s safety or health at risk. It is best practice to never talk to, pet, or approach a dog without the owner’s consent. Be sure to respect the handler’s wishes, even if you do not agree, and avoid taking it personally if they tell you it is not okay to pet their animal.

  1. Service dog handlers are people and it is important to see the individual. They live their lives just like everyone else by going to work, shopping at the grocery store, and going for a walk at the local park.

Although it seems like a very easy conversation starter, not every service dog handler wants to talk about their dog. In a single day, a service dog handler might be approached and asked about their animal in public numerous times. For that reason, it’s important to understand that this shouldn’t be the only, or even major, topic of discussion when interacting with a service dog handler. If someone seems bothered when you mention their service dog, it’s more than likely you are the hundredth person to inquire. As one could imagine, having the same conversation with every person can get old and tiresome. For a handler, it can begin to feel like they are being noticed or acknowledged because of their service dog as oppose to their own unique attributes. With that said, it’s crucial to see the individual and speak with them as if the animal isn’t there. If the handler feels comfortable sharing or has a desire to speak about their service animal, they will move the conversation in that direction.

I hope that you found this as interesting as I did. If you want to be blown away, reach out to Alex and ask him how many miles a week he runs with his dog. Its a ridiculous number!

It is my hope that Alex will write again for #slowchathealth on the therapeutic relationships between humans and animals.

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