Dear Gentle Butch,
I know we aren’t supposed to touch service dogs, but we can look at them, right? What if the dog approaches us first?
I was walking toward a woman with a service dog on the sidewalk, and her dog was so incredibly cute! It was a beautiful shiny black Lab bursting with Lab cuteness, with floppy soft ears and a big doggie smile.
I love dogs. I didn’t say anything at all, but as we got closer I did look at the dog, smile, and give it a little wave. He wagged his tail.
As I passed, the dog’s tail got faster, it raised its head, and sniffed at my knuckles. I paused and turned my hand around for him, and he gave it a little kiss as he went by.
I would never have touched a service dog that hadn’t sniffed me, and I didn’t even really touch him as it was!
The woman yanked the dog closer to her and snarled at me: “Interfering with a service dog is against the law!” And kept wheeling down the street away from me.
I didn’t even make her and the dog slow down on their way.
I know I shouldn’t touch them, and I didn’t! But I feel really bad. She was just so angry! I don’t think I did anything wrong, and I don’t see why she had to be so mean about it.
What do you think?
— I Love Dogs
Listen. I get it. I really do. I am also a dog lover, and human beings evolved next to dogs. Our species are inextricably linked, and when you’re a dog person it’s nearly impossible to reject a doggie overture.
Studies show that dogs in the workplace lower stress levels, and they make obnoxious teens and stoic butches alike coo and make baby talk and kissy noises. Their fur begs to be pet and their noses beg to be kissed. And dogs — especially Labs — love attention from people.
That’s where things get sticky with service animals.
My service dog loves people — especially children. And other dogs. If I allowed it, he would spend his days as a social butterfly distributing kisses and soliciting treats rather than supporting me.
And that’s the thing: service dogs have a job to do. And when they are distracted or when they are hoping for and expecting attention from others, that’s when things can get dangerous for their disabled handlers.
You say that the dog initiated with you, and that you didn’t slow them down or touch him.
But you actually initiated with the dog. Making eye contact and waving is very appealing to friendly dogs.
And if you were close enough for the dog to sniff the back of your hand? You were too close.
Service dogs need space to work. Walking close enough to one for him to sniff you, even if you hadn’t gotten his attention first, is very distracting.
Think about it: if every person (or even every tenth person) who walked past that woman and her dog waved and interacted with her dog, the dog would stop paying attention to his handler and start looking around and maybe even lunging toward people for attention, play, etc.
My dog once lunged when I was in my wheelchair, and I ended up in a heap on the sidewalk.
It’s dangerous for the dog, too — a man once made kissy noises at my dog, he looked at that damn kissy man instead of where he was going, and I rolled over his toes.
So: next time you see someone with a service dog, even if you’re on a crowded sidewalk or in a narrow hallway, avoid eye contact with the dog and give them a wide berth by either walking out toward the curb or even stepping aside for them to pass.
I think many people make the mistaken assumption that service dogs are so perfectly trained that they are basically robots; if the dog shouldn’t sniff, he shouldn’t sniff no matter what.
But dogs are dogs, and no training is perfect, and when people walk by offering attention over and over, it erodes the training the dog has gone through.
I know it hurts. Like, I mean, if you love dogs it can sometimes actually feel like a physical pain to refrain from at least even saying hi.
But don’t do it. Just don’t. It is dangerous for the handler and for the dog.
Now: you are wondering why the handler was so angry.
I confess, although my name is Gentle, that reading this letter angered me, too — even as I understood how easy it is to make a mistake like you did.
See, disabled people, like any marginalized group, deal with microaggressions every day — be it people TALKING VERY SLOWLY IN THEIR SPECIAL VOICE, grabbing our wheelchairs, asking why we ‘need those sticks,’ or stealing the parking spaces set aside for us so that we have enough room to enter and exit with our equipment.
So I am nearly certain that you were not the first person who interfered with her dog that week, and probably not even the first to interfere that day — and after a certain point, all of us just snap.
The type of behavior you describe is really, really distracting to the dog and it’s incredibly enraging to a handler, no matter how well-meaning you were. That’s why the handler got so angry. It’s as simple as that.
I know it stings to have a stranger rage at you in public, and I also know that not a lot of people get good information on how to deal with service dogs in public except for ‘don’t touch.’
But now you know for next time, and hopefully by writing in, other people now know, too.