dog in vest

Dear Pet-Parents in Pet stores

Hello! Service dog handler here.

Like you, we are here at Petsmart/Petco/literally any pet store that is visited by pet parents ever, because we need to buy supplies. Toys, treats, food, you name it. We have dogs. We’re here to buy dog supplies, and possibly supplies for our other pets.

But it doesn’t mean that our service dogs are “Off-duty” just because they are in a store that allows all pets.

They’ve still got their vests or gear on. Maybe they don’t. It’s not law that our dogs are marked. But they’re still on duty.

But ESPECIALLY if it’s readily apparent that the dog is a service dog…

DO NOT, LET YOUR PETS, COME UP TO OUR DOGS.

They’ll ignore them, but it’s very distracting when there’s someone breathing down your neck.

Don’t stand there and say “no, come on bella, you can’t say hi to that dog”, while still letting your dog come up and sniff and get in our dogs faces.

Pull them away. Walk away. Don’t allow your dogs to get in our dog’s faces. Our dogs will ignore them, but again, it’d be pretty weird if you were trying to ignore your co-worker while they’re standing an inch from you, breathing down your neck and staring at you.

It’s creepy.

And it’s frustrating.

Lead your dogs away. If you can see that a dog is a service dog, don’t let your dog get in that dog’s face. Especially if your dog is the rude, pushy type.

ESPECIALLY if you see a patch that says SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING. Because you could possibly be setting that dog’s training back.

Please, control your dogs. And don’t let them get in my dog’s face while she’s working. It’s frustrating and I WILL give you the evil eye.

I don’t care if your dog is friendly. Please, give my dog space to work. You don’t have to give us a huge wide pass in an aisle, just don’t let your dog interfere with mine.

Service Dog Behavior

I’d like to talk a little bit about service dog behavior.  Many of you have probably read my Fake Service Dogs post that I wrote last year.  It currently has over 100,000 notes; many of which agreeing with my standpoint, some trying to argue otherwise, and a few who say something to the effect of “Not all service dogs will behave as well as yours.  But it doesn’t mean they are fakes.”  While that may be true, I found these comments in particular highly alarming.

It is our duty as service dog handlers to maintain the high reputation that legitimate service dog teams carry.  This means our dogs are trained to the highest of standards.  While the ADA only requires that a service dog be task trained and non-disruptive in public, that is the minimum.  At an absolute MINIMUM, your dog must be able to stay within a relatively close distance to you, not potty indoors, not knock over merchandise, not jump on or sniff other people, and not show any signs of aggression towards people or other animals.  I know a few of you are probably thinking, “My dog does all this. Now get off my case.”  But again, that is the minimum training a dog must receive.  And honestly, I’d be embarrassed to work a dog like that.

In reality, ALL service dogs (no matter the breed of dog or the tasks they perform) should be able to do the following before going into non-pet friendly places…

A service dog should remain within one foot of it’s handler at all times unless performing a task directly related to the handler’s disability.  This helps prevent the dog from getting in the way of others or causing more of a traffic jam than a dog in public already causes.  Nothing looks worse than a dog who is lagging behind its handler, forging ahead, or sloppily heeling two feet out from his handler’s left side.  It’s unprofessional.

A service dog should be able to walk loosely on a leash, unless performing a trained momentum pull or guide task.  NEVER should a service dog look like it’s pulling its handler.  Even if you are using a traffic lead to keep him close, your dog should know how to heel… period!  Some of you might be laughing or calling a team like this an obvious fake, but I’ve seen legitimate service dogs pulling at their leashes all too often. 

A service dog should be able to completely ignore distractions.  It’s not enough that a service dog doesn’t lunge towards or bark at people/dogs who pass by.  Expressing anything more than a casual interest in something, or slightly flinching when surprised, is really not okay.  If another dog walks by, a service dog might cock his head in the dog’s direction, but he should immediately (without correction) be able to refocus back to his handler within a second.  Same thing with noisy kids, drive by petters, dropped food, etc.  If your dog cannot learn to ignore distractions, he is not cut out for being a service dog.  I’ve seen many responsible handlers wash out dogs who were too high strung, rowdy, fearful, or otherwise too distracting to be in a public setting.  It sucks, but it’s part of being a service dog handler… nobody said it was going to be easy.

A service dog should be able to hold a long down stay in public settings.  (I’d like to add that service dogs should be able to tuck underneath a table or chair while doing so, but I know some giant breeds are incapable of this. In which case, they should be able to hold their down stay besides a table or in between two chairs until asked to get up.) Call me nosy or judgmental, but it can be so annoying looking over at a service dog team where the handler keeps having to remind his/her dog to lay down every 5 minutes.  It is distracting, sloppy, and unprofessional.  Holding a down stay is such an important piece of public access training!  Side note: a service dog should NOT be begging for food or receiving food either.  Ideally, a service dog should be able to curl up under a table and go to sleep (or remain still/quiet) for however long the handler remains seated unless the dog needs to get up and perform a task.

A service dog should be able to respond quickly and eagerly to their handler’s commands no matter the situation.  I’ve trained some very stubborn dogs before, but if a handler has to throw out rapid-fire commands (“Sit. Sit! Fido SIT! NO! Come on… SIT! SITTT!!!”) in order for the dog to respond to their commands, then the dog is not ready for public access.  Walking around constantly throwing out words to remind your dog what he should be doing looks sloppy.

Finally, a service dog team should give an overall look of dignity and professionalism.  Dogs should be clean and well kept.  Nails should be trimmed, coat should be clean and shiny, they shouldn’t smell, and shouldn’t be shedding all over the place because they haven’t been brushed recently.  By owning a service dog, you are representing not only yourselves as a team, but the entire service dog community.  

Think about it, seeing a service dog team is not a common thing for the general public. Thus, it is important we and our canine partners give excellent first impressions.

Dear Fake Service Dog Handlers

I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We’ve probably never spoken in person. But we’ve definitely exchanged eye contact.

It has occurred to me that the eye contact you may have received from me could be viewed as aggressive, malicious, entitled, elitist, or rude.

I’d like to explain why.

No doubt that the reason I’m looking at you is because of the dog next to you, the one lunging and barking or straining towards my dog while wearing a vest with the words “Service Dog” on it, while my dog sits quietly at my side and offers little more than a glance in your dog’s direction.

My dog has been attacked, and bitten, by dogs like yours. She has scars on her face and legs from where dogs like yours have attacked her in the store. The reason she’s even checking on your dog in the first place, is because she has become cautious. Not reactive or aggressive, but cautious. Because she doesn’t want to be bitten again.

My dog is not scared of your dog, but she looked at him momentarily cause she isn’t sure what he’s about to do to her.

And I don’t blame her one bit.

By bringing your dog into a store, you’re endangering my dog and myself. My dog is the only way I know when I’m about to have a panic attack that leaves me with my head split open on the concrete floor. For another handler, it could mean having a seizure that could leave them severely injured. For a person with a life threatening allergy, it could mean anaphylactic shock that could kill them. It could mean serious consequences for those of us who need our service dogs to keep us alive.

If you’re disabled, and need a service dog, please go about it the right way. Get a trainer, or a dog from a program. but please, don’t pass off your dog as a service dog if they are not public access trained and perform specific tasks to mitigate your disability.

You’re putting us in danger, and you’re giving our community a bad name.

We shouldn’t have to freeze up in fear when we see another “service dog” in a store, and eye each other from a distance, trying to figure out if that dog is a danger to us.

We shouldn’t have to do that.

So please consider what you’re doing by abusing the laws that are in place to protect me and the dog that is my lifeline.

Leave your pets at home. Please.

This has been a PSA.