Why we need to educate ourselves about service animals

Today at my local shopping centre I overheard a conversation between two strangers which got a little heated. One lady was going about her business with her assistance dog and another woman came up and started talking to the dog. The woman with the assistance dog explained that the dog is working as a service animal and pointed out his harness that indicated this. She tried to explain to the other woman that distracting the dog while he is working means that he will not pick up on when she needs help and she could get seriously injured or die as a result. She also explained that this is the same as guide dogs. She asked the woman to speak to her and not her animal for that very reason.

Rather than apologise for her mistake and acknowledge that she wasn’t aware of this, the other woman proceeded to argue that she addresses and pats guide dogs all the time and that all dogs need to be socialised. She then started accusing the owner of not being able to control her dog, completely missing the points that the owner had made in the first place.

I ended up talking with the owner after the exchange and she was rightfully upset about the exchange and confided in me that she was so sick of having to explain to ignorant people not to pat her dog or otherwise distract it while it is working. For dogs who alert their owners to medical issues, such as people who have epileptic fits or have insulin related issues, it is integral that they stay focused as any distraction can literally be a matter of life or death.

For people who don’t use service animals, I believe that it is important that we make sure to educate ourselves about what is or isn’t appropriate when we encounter working animals. Until a few years ago, I personally was guilty of smiling at working dogs because they’re ridiculously cute and the dog lover in me just wants to pat every dog I see. It’s an understandable reaction, but we cannot put people’s lives at risk by distracting a service animal while it is working.

Long story short: if someone asks you not to pat or talk to their dog as it distracts them from their work, don’t do it. And don’t start arguing with them. I guarantee they know more about their dog than you do.

In case you are interested in learning more about why you should never pat or distract a service dog while it is working, I highly recommend the following video from Molly Burke, a YouTuber who is blind and uses a guide dog. The video is a few years old now, but everything she says remains incredibly relevant.

(She also has many videos on her channel about living with blindness and what it’s like having a guide dog. I have honestly learnt so much from watching her videos and have evolved from my own preconceived ideas of blindness. I encourage you to subscribe to her channel if you aren’t already.)