I was in my doctor’s waiting room the other day when a man with a service dog walked in. I knew he was a service dog because he was wearing a vest that clearly said, “SERVICE ANIMAL– DO NOT PET.”
Then the door from the office opens and an old woman steps out.
“Well look at you, cutie! Aw, what a fluff ball!”
She had descended upon the service dog and was unapologetically petting and pinching his cheeks. She did not ask permission. She did not read the vest. She did not interact with the man who was holding the dog in his lap at all.
“She’s a service dog,” he said, shifting the dog on his lap.
“I bet you are, you little fluff!”
I just stared at him, open-mouthed as she continued. I could tell by the look on his face that he was trying very hard not to explode on this otherwise innocent looking old woman. But as soon as she had done her final kissy-faces and left, I burst into laughter.
“What the hell?” I asked the guy. “Does she not know that like the number one rule with service dogs is that you don’t pet service dogs?!”
“You wouldn’t believe how often that happens,” he said. “But the important thing I guess is that she knows–” he referred to his dog, “she knows she has a job, so she’s patient with people.”
He told me his story. He had MS and his balance was fading and his dog walking in front of him helped him to keep his feet in line.
I’ve only met a handful of patients with service dogs so far. There are so many kinds–those who are able to detect and predict things like seizures and plummeting blood sugar, those who can do things like help open doors, bring water or medication or retrieve items. There are dogs tall enough to lean on–there are also dogs who help lead the blind and alert the deaf.
And like you wouldn’t want your surgeon distracted by a small child, you wouldn’t want your service dog to be distracted either. When they’re on the clock they need to be listening, watching and given the opportunity to be fully concentrated on the task at hand.
This doesn’t mean that service dogs don’t get to be normal dogs and that they don’t get to be loved on. The owner clearly loved his dog. He told me how she takes over the bed at night and how his sons fought over who got to play with her after dinner. She spent long afternoons at the dog park and sometimes in the sand at the beach.
So: The next time you come across that dog with a vest, here are a few pointers
- Don’t pet or try to distract the dog. If you’d like to interact the dog ask the owner first and know that many times the answer will most likely be an apologetic but necessary no.
- Don’t try to guilt the owner about making the dog do a job. Like people, dogs get great satisfaction from helping others and the bond between a service dog and it’s owner can be one of the most rewarding ones.
- The patient I met was very open about sharing his medical history with me, but just because they have a walking beacon of poor health with them doesn’t mean they always want to discuss their disease. Don’t pressure them to share their medical information. Stop, and see if they offer it themselves. If not, move on.
- Service dogs come in ALL shapes and sizes. Just because you see an old woman with a little white dog in a service vest doesn’t mean she’s faking it’s authenticity. Just as the dogs have to direct their owners, the owners have to be able to manage the size of the dog.
- The owner isn’t legally required to prove anything. I don’t have to take off my shirt and show my port to anyone who fights with me about parking handicapped. The same goes for patients who have service dogs. They are not required to carry papers to prove their condition.