For a while now I’ve had it in mind to create a post talking about the “do’s and don’ts” when we see a service/working dog in our daily travels. I have a personal connection with this topic as my very good friend is visually impaired and has used service dogs for most of her life. A service dog is a lifeline to a blind or disabled person; I can attest to this as I see my friend’s challenges almost every single day as we make our way through busy downtown Toronto.

Despite the best efforts of programs to educate the general public, there are still many people who just simply don’t “get” the issue of service dogs and don’t know how to respond around them. Hopefully I can throw a little light on some of the “do’s and don’ts” for those who are not familiar.

Never Distract A Service Dog

This is probably the most important thing to mention. Even though a service dog may not “look like” it’s doing its job, she is always working. Service dogs typically wear some sort of vest or harness and are easily identifiable as such. To distract a working service dog can have serious or dangerous consequences for the dog and handler team. A service dog needs all her attention to safely guide her handler through traffic and many other obstacles; to be distracted from that job is dangerous or even fatal for the dog/handler team, especially in big city traffic.

Never pet or touch a service dog or make distracting sounds to get their attention – for example, making “kissy” or clicking sounds, calling to them or talking to them. The best practice is to politely ignore the dog.

No Need To “Feel Sorry” For The Dog

Service dogs are dearly loved by their owner/handler. They are well adjusted, socialized and highly trained to be working much of the time. Service dogs are just like other dogs – they get plenty of time off duty to run, play, get treats and just be a “regular dog”. No need to “feel sorry” for a service dog; they are very happy doing their duty. Dogs love a routine and like to work, especially many breeds of bigger dogs.

Be Patient

Be patient when you see a service dog and handler team executing a climb up/down stairs, getting on/off public transit or any similar situation. The dog needs to work out the safest method for herself and the handler to negotiate the challenge. As a team they will usually successfully work it out, but in the rare case a handler needs assistance to navigate a problematic situation they will call out or ask for assistance if it is required.

Never grab a blind person by the arm and pull them across the street, etc. in an attempt to navigate them – this is probably one of the most confusing and frightening things a blind person can experience as it totally disorients them within their surroundings. If you do want to help, politely ask them if they require any assistance with whatever it is they’re navigating and proceed from there. It will be appreciated.

It’s Personal

Although people may mean well, it’s inappropriate to ask a service dog handler: “What happened to you? How did you go blind (or become disabled, etc.)”, or “How do you deal with it?”. Please understand this is personal information and the handler most likely does not wish to discuss this with anyone.

Don’t Discriminate – It’s The Law

The law protects service dogs and their handlers. Service dogs are not pets. They are allowed in all food stores, restaurants, food outlets and other public spaces. This is the law: both the Ontario and federal Human Rights Codes prohibit discrimination based on disability, and rejecting a service animal definitely fits that category.

Rejecting a service dog also violates the Ontario Blind Person’s Rights Act. If there is a rejection of the service dog, the service dog handler can file a human rights complaint with the appropriate tribunal, either Ontario or federal, and can pursue charges under the Blind Person’s Right Act, which fines any offender a maximum of $5,000 if convicted.

I hope this helps. I’ve also included a couple of relevant links below if you’d like to learn more about service dogs, their handlers, and the challenges they face:

Guide Dogs for the Blind

Blind Not Alone

Service dogs save lives

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