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How to Interact with a Service Dog in Public

 In General, PPH Blog, PPH Menlo Park, Service Dog Training, Service Dogs

Few things bring more instant joy than interacting with a dog or puppy you just became acquainted with. With the pandemic causing a spike in dog ownership and many using the daily cadence of dog walks and trips to the dog park to get some much needed fresh air and social interaction, the likelihood that you’ll get a chance to interact with new canine company is higher than ever.

While all dogs become special companions to their owners, the highly trained service dogs provided by Paws for Purple Hearts and similar organizations serve the added purpose of helping their Veterans or active duty Service Member handler get through their daily lives successfully while they navigate the road to recovery and rejuvenation.  These special dogs require extra awareness. If you see one on the street or at a store, please remember that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities are allowed to be accompanied by their assistance dog in all places the public is permitted.  So, before you approach a service dog, which should be adorned with a special sign or vest that says “SERVICE  DOG” on it, there are a few special rules you should heed to ensure the experience is positive for you, the service dog, and its handler.  Here is what a Paws for Purple Hearts program instructor recommends.

What To Do

Talk first, engage after:

It’s important that you take it slow if you want to engage with a trained service dog. First things first, it is vital that you ask the handler’s permission to see if they’re comfortable with you interacting with their dog. These dogs are specially trained to focus solely on their person and their needs, so taking time away from that could be a distraction to both the dog and the handler. Ask the handler first to see what they’re comfortable with and go from there – and don’t get offended if they don’t let you pet their dog. They might be busy at that moment, even if it is not apparent to the people around them.

Follow the handler’s lead

Please follow the handler’s lead and instructions when you’re in the initial introductory phase. Do not assume that if a service dog walks over to you that you can pet them – sometimes they just get distracted, as we do not want to encourage them to wander off the job!  Instead, please be patient and wait for the handler’s consent and instructions on what they and their canine companion are comfortable with. If you are allowed to engage with the dog and even pet them, please do not give them commands.

Liberty keeps her focus on her handler
Liberty keeps her focus on her handler

Additionally, if you have a dog with you, it is very important that you ask permission of the owner before introducing your dog to their service dog. Every situation is different and some dogs are more compatible than others. Ultimately, it is the service dog handler’s call, and we need to respect that.

What Not To Do

Ask personal questions:

This one should be obvious, but sometimes can get lost in the excitement of meeting a new person and their pet companion. In particular, please do not ask the owner questions about their disability or about why they have a service dog.

Distract the dog:

Paws for Purple Hearts service dogs are specially trained to help and care for their owners at all times. This includes when they’re outside and in public. Please do not distract them by making quick gestures, petting without getting permission or making noises that might break a dog’s focus.

Arri demonstrates the “lay on” command
Arri demonstrates the “lay on” command

Here is some specific detail from our Paws from Purple Hearts program instructor Tamara, about why this is so important:

“Some of the most common things we get from people are: kissy noises, people imitating dog barking, extended eye contact with the dog and trying to offer them food from the table. This is very distracting for our dogs and does not allow them to do their job and they might miss a cue from us. It’s important that you don’t interrupt or distract service dogs because the handler’s life depends on it.”

Help a Hero

With the dos and not-to-dos covered, it’s also important to cover what to do if a designated service dog approaches you without their owner around.  Please be very alert if this happens. In situations like this, service dogs are trained to “go get help” if their handler is unconscious or in need of help. If a service dog approaches you unattended, you should follow them to see if their owner is alright. You might just be the person that saves someone’s life that day!

Like any dog, trained service dogs play an exceptional role in the lives of their owners and can bring joy to many they meet. Owners understand that the special vests and signage a service dog wears may draw extra attention, but please be extra respectful and courteous if you attempt to interact with them due to the added responsibility these dogs hold.

Training a service dog begins at about three weeks of age with Warriors, staff, and volunteers all helping socialize and prepare these young pups to become loving and loyal service dogs.  They can adapt to the many places and many faces that an injured Warrior encounters when out in the community.

Paws for Purple Hearts service dogs in training are easy to recognize – they wear a vest that says “SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING.” If you see Paws for Purple Hearts service dogs out training and would like to interact with them, there is a way to do that safely and helpfully.  Our program instructors say that these interactions can be very useful for their ongoing growth.  Our dogs learn commands like “go say hi” where they approach a person, sit in front of them and yet still face their handler. This special command allows the dog to interact with you but also remain focused on the person that needs their attention the most.  Just ask the instructor first, and they can help guide you through the steps to help.

Help give the gift of independence to a Veteran or Active Duty Service Member today by donating today on our website or by texting purplepaws to 707070.

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