“You’ll have to excuse me; I’m a dog lover…”

I hate that sentence. I have learned that what follows is going to be problematic. This “dog lover” will invariably start petting Gizmo while commenting that the WORKING DOG—DO NOT PET sign on his vest doesn’t apply to dog lovers, will want to tell me about the dog he has or once had, will ask a thousand questions about Gizmo and his training, will give Gizmo commands and then tell me what a dumb dog he is when he ignores them, or some equally shocking and surprising behavior. I even had a “dog lover” follow me around a store showing me pictures of his dog. Waitresses serving food stop to pet him or offer him food off a plate they are clearing away. Store clerks ignore me to talk to him when I’m the one with the money to buy something. And, almost every “dog lover” tells me how lucky I am that I get to take my pet everywhere.

Although I believe folks think they are being kind and sharing their love for animals with me, they don’t realize what it’s like to partner with a service dog. Allow me to share the not-so-great side of having a service dog around “dog lovers.”

For starters, please note that service dogs are not pets. I do not get to take my pet with me everywhere. I have another dog and bird at home that are my pets. Service dogs are specially trained to do a job, and are legally differentiated from pets. Gizmo’s job is to alert me before I have a neurological event so I can call for help and get to safety, to help me balance, to help me up when I fall, to find help or find me if I get disoriented or pass out, to fetch my phone or medicine, to pick up things I drop, and to guide me if I am blinded or disoriented. I may leave home feeling fine, but it only takes a second for my day to go dangerously wrong.

Why shouldn’t people pet or talk to him? When Gizmo is focused on a “dog lover” he isn’t focused on me. While a “dog lover” thinks it’s cute to encourage Gizmo to sniff his shoes or lick his hand because Gizmo obviously loves him or smells his dog, Gizmo might miss a smell that signals a change in my body chemistry or a micro-expression that tells him I am about to have a problem. While a “dog lover” is petting him and cooing baby-talk to him, Gizmo might not notice that I have lost my balance and isn’t able to help me regain it before I fall. When Gizmo is leading my husband or friend to find me because I have fallen or passed out, and a “dog lover” stops them to talk about the dog he once had, emergency help is delayed.

While Gizmo’s service allows me to go and do by myself, thanks to “dog lovers” everything takes twice as long. I can’t run in and out of a grocery store without someone wanting to know how he was trained to look at me instead of the meat counter. Or some young mother wants to teach her children about service dogs and delays me thirty minutes. Or the pharmacy technician holds my prescription while telling me how smart his dog is, and wouldn’t a service dog be just the thing for his elderly aunt. One lady at Costco actually stopped me seven (yes SEVEN) different times to talk to Gizmo or tell me something else she forgot to mention about her childhood dog.

Much of Gizmo’s ongoing training must be done in public so we know he will do it in an emergency. Like anyone learning new skills, Gizmo makes mistakes and needs correction. Even if a “dog lover” thinks he’s doing something brilliant, it may not be what he was told to do or supposed to do at that moment. It confuses him when I am correcting him or giving him the sorry-try-again sign and a perfect stranger comes up excitedly telling him what a good dog he is. How can anyone besides me and Gizmo’s trainer know what a good dog he is or isn’t? Comments like that actually slow down his training because it gives him mixed signals.

If you are a sincere dog lover and want to show appreciation for their service and training in a helpful manner, here are some things to remember:

  • Do not do anything to interrupt the service dog while it’s working. And please, assume he is working unless told otherwise. Even when Gizmo looks dead asleep, he is totally tuned in to me and will alert in a heartbeat if something about me changes.
  • Speak to the person first. Do not aim any noise towards the dog.
  • Do not touch the service dog or person without asking for, and receiving, permission.
  • Do not offer food to the service dog. Many dogs have food allergies, and their treats are tied to training.
  • Do not ask personal questions about the person’s disability, or intrude on his privacy.
  • Do not be offended if the person does not want, or is not able, to talk with you.
  • A “nice dog,” “beautiful lab,” or “what a well-trained animal” spoken in our general direction, without expectation of a response, is always appreciated.
  • If you want to talk about your dog, or want to know more about service dogs in general, join an online community of dog lovers. Someone is always willing to talk about dogs when they have the time.

I love talking about Gizmo and any other animal, but not when I am rushing to accomplish something, or focusing on walking without falling and hurting myself. Please be sensitive to the needs of those with service dogs. There is a reason why these canine helpers are needed 24/7.