3 Tips To Help Parents and Children Learn About Service Dogs

by Anneliese Knop | Anneliese is an Associate Licensed Counselor, freelance writer, and self-proclaimed “blindfluencer”. She uses her blog to promote accessibility, for the blind and service dog users, in her community. She loves to travel, read, hike, and plan adventures for her friends. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnelieseM_DK and visit her blog Look On The Dark Side

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“Look, Mom, a doggy! Can I go pet it?”

You straighten up from the shelf of canned goods you’d been scanning and turn to see where your child is pointing with delight. At the end of the aisle a woman carrying a shopping basket over one arm stands facing the shelves, holding her phone up as if to take a picture of the rows of canned vegetables and fruits. She’s wearing a Bluetooth headset, and you put things together when you see the black Labrador retriever sprawled ungracefully at her feet and wearing an elegant brown leather harness.

The woman is blind. She’s using some text-to-speech app between her phone and headset to read the labels on the canned goods, and the dog is her guide. Well, you’re glad there’s not a random dog wandering the supermarket, but how do you answer your child’s eager request?

Dogs Are Everywhere

It’s uncommon, but no longer rare, to see a pair of fluffy ears peeking out from under a restaurant table, a glistening black nose poking up from the lap of a wheelchair user, or a stray tail protruding from a church pew. We seem to find more ways for dogs to partner with humans almost every other day!

There’s also a growing movement among both large and small businesses to declare themselves “dog friendly.” Canine fur-babies on good behavior are welcomed into more and more public spaces. In general, this is a good thing. Humans usually benefit from association with dogs.

And for the most part, kids love dogs and want to pet them. So it’s important to be able to educate your children about how to act around service dogs. And how to tell a service dog apart from a pet. This is a matter of safety, both for your children and for the service dog handler, as well as part of raising children with an inclusive mindset. The next generation should expect and accept the presence of service dogs as a marker of a society that values all its members.

Unfortunately, service dogs aren’t limited to a few specific breeds, and they don’t all wear harnesses or vests or special patches. It’s rarely immediately apparent what the dog’s job is, and it can be awkward to ask. And what if you mistake a service dog for a pet? Below are some tips for making this potentially problematic situation a first class learning experience for your kids.

#1 Identifying Service Dogs

In the United States, which is where I write from, the law does not prescribe what a service dog should wear. In fact, there are no legal requirements for identifying a dog as a service animal. Neither vests nor patches, harnesses nor papers are required. You can’t identify a service dog just by looking at it. You may be able to infer its status by its behavior, but that’s no guarantee, either.

Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes, though size does matter a little, for some jobs more than others. Dogs who guide the blind, pull wheelchairs, or disrupt seizures are usually larger. I myself work with a 65 lb. German shepherd. She’s really petite for her breed, but the right size for me. She’s also probably on her way to retirement, a thought that saddens me greatly.

But bigger isn’t always better. Look on the Dark Side to read how a chihuahua-dachshund mix has helped someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, reclaim her life. A dog who alerts to sounds for a deaf person needn’t be big, either. Just loud. And we all know the little ones can make some serious noise!

So what do you tell that shining-eyed face looking up at you asking for permission to go pet the dog? The same thing you would if you knew for certain that it was a pet.

“Why don’t you ask her owner for permission? You should always ask before petting a dog that isn’t yours.”

It’s that simple. Just ask.

“But what if it’s a service dog and they’re not allowed to pet them?”

Then the nice lady with the cute doggy will say ‘no.”

Many kind-hearted people often wish to avoid putting people like me in a position to have to say “no” to a kid who just wants to pet a cute dog. I get it, and I appreciate it. But saying ‘no” is both my right and my responsibility as an adult, just like it is yours. And, you never know…I might say yes!

#2 The Rules About Petting Service Dogs

“But Anneliese,” you say patiently, “if you’ll just write a blog post about the rules for petting service dogs, then we could avoid this awkward interaction in the first place!”

Really, is anything in life that simple?

The rules about petting, or even acknowledging the presence of, service dogs differ depending on the dog’s job requirements, and sometimes even on which school it came from. There’s no hard-and-fast set of guidelines I could give you that could explain which dogs you can pet and when. Handlers have discretion over the rules, too. Some adhere strictly, others are more flexible. There is a great deal of diversity in the service dog community, such as it is.

So, let me show you how to really level up your parenting in this situation.

You’ve told your child to go ask the lady about her dog. So, full of hope and nerves, she strides down the aisle and says “excuse me, may I please pet your dog?”

“No, sweetie, my dog is on duty right now. She’s a service dog,” the woman responds with a friendly smile. “But thanks for asking so politely!”

Your child looks disappointed, but you move up to stand with her.

“Ma’am, would you mind explaining about your service dog to my daughter? We haven’t run into one before.”

The woman beams at you. Not only was your child the picture of politeness but you’ve now exhibited three crucial concepts for this woman and your child.

1.     “No” is normal.

“No” may feel like a rejection, but it isn’t. It’s a healthy part of human interaction. It’s not the end of friendship, employment, common courtesy, love, or anything else, most of the time. “No” isn’t a barrier, just part of conversation.

2.     It’s ok to not know something.

You could have hurried your child away, flustered and half-whispering something incoherent about “helper dogs” and “special jobs,” but instead you asked. Learning can overpower the shame of ignorance, and it brings people together.

3.     Respect is often learned.    

Finally, you’re teaching your child that respect often has to be learned. It’s important to you that both you and your child treat this woman with the same level of respect you would anyone else. A knowledge barrier appears to be preventing that, so you break it down with a politely worded question. And your daughter watches, listens, and learns.

#3 Service Dog Advocacy

I can’t speak for all service dog handlers, of course. But for my part, I accept that my furry sidekick draws attention. If I didn’t want to deal with that attention I probably would not have gotten a dog. And I believe that the question is the most powerful tool given to mankind. It can cultivate respect and draw people together, when used correctly.

The Takeaway

Don’t get too flustered trying to come up with the right words to explain the ever-changing concept of service dogs to your kids. Don’t hush them or try to keep your voice low as you stumble through the explanation. There’s no need for discomfort when you can be a super-parent and wield the power of the question alongside your children. Just ask.

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