An introduction to service dogs

Elizabeth Powell ’19 | Features Staff Writer

You all may have noticed a bunch of service dogs on campus. Some of them are from Diggity Dogs, a training program for service dogs that I voluntarily foster for. Some of them are people’s personal service dogs. Either way, the general public doesn’t really know a lot about service dogs, so here’s a brief explanation of what they do and some do’s and don’t when you see a service dog on campus!

There are many types of service dogs. The most common image of a service dog is a seeing-eye dog. Mobility service dogs are probably the most well known, but they make up a small fraction of the types of service dogs working in the field. There are also medical alert service dogs that can alert their owners of symptoms of the conditions they have. And finally, there are psychiatric service dogs that help their owners with mental conditions. Different people and organizations have different categories, but this is how the organization I work with defines them.   

Dogs learn tons of commands which can be extremely specific and tailored to their owner’s needs. For example, some dogs are trained to detect allergens that can be deadly to their owner to alert them of an oncoming medical emergency. My dog, Monkey, knows how to bring me my keys and my cell phone, push and pull on doors, nudge me when I scratch myself and sit underneath me when we’re in a crowded space, to name a few of the commands.  

Service dogs still do get time to just “be dogs.” I’ve heard the concerned tone of people asking me if Monkey ever gets to play, and yes, she does. Service dogs, like all dogs, love to play, and it’s important to give them time for that. I usually bring Monkey out to play with other dogs at least once a week. When she’s in my room, she’s in regular dog mode (most of the time, I also train her in my room).

Regular dogs like to lounge around and take naps, and service dogs do it too — they’re just dressed up and in public for it. Anytime I stop somewhere, like in a class, Monkey has time to relax and take a nap.  

Some people might think training the dogs constantly sounds like a lot of work, but for dogs, it’s basically part of playing. They get lots of food and treats during training sessions, so the dogs tend to enjoy being trained too. Training doesn’t even necessarily mean an active event. Training can also be getting the dog to relax by giving them a massage, practicing stay and other activities that are more sedentary for the dog.

Especially with the program I’m in, we never negatively reinforce or punish dogs. I think it’s safe to say Monkey is happy being a service dog, and so are all service dogs. If they didn’t like being service dogs, then they wouldn’t become service dogs (meaning they wouldn’t finish the training program and graduate).

Now, for some do’s and don’t for being around service dogs.

Don’t distract or pet a service dog. My general advice is to ignore service dogs. They are basically an extension of their owner and need to have their attention on them while they are working so they can do their job. So please don’t yell at them, talk to them, use baby talk with them, take pictures of them, touch them or their equipment, crowd around them, whistle at them, bark at them or stare at them.

I’ve had people say things like “Bye Monkey!” and, while I know the intention is good, it’s a distraction. When Monkey finally goes to her proper owner, if she gets used to these kinds of distractions, it could put her owner in danger. (That sounds dramatic, but there are tons of stories online of bad things happening to owners of service dogs because somebody distracted the dog.)

I’ve also encountered times where people stare at Monkey. It’s particularly difficult for me and Monkey because she loves attention, so sometimes she gets distracted by a stranger instead of doing her job. Attention is a reinforcer for dogs, so by giving Monkey attention when she is doing something she shouldn’t do (get distracted), it is reinforcing that behavior.

Do talk to the owner — not the dog. This is along the same lines as “don’t distract a service dog,” but it deserves its own emphasis.

Don’t ask someone why they have a service dog. For people with graduated, certified service dogs, their medical history is private. It’s pretty rude to ask a stranger if they have PTSD, for example. It’s okay to be curious and ask questions, but sometimes they might not want to answer them.  

Do ask every time to pet. I don’t mean ask to pet a service dog every time you see one because that won’t work. That being said, if you want to pet them, ask the owner — never go straight to the dog. If you see a service dog that you hang out and play with regularly, you should still ask. It’s important to differentiate between work and play for service dogs, and greeting humans is a part of play. Along the same vein, don’t give the dog commands. I’ve been in a weird situation where someone walked up to Monkey and started running commands with her. Not only is that super rude, but it’s also a distraction for a service dog. There’s only one person that they should be trained to listen to (their owner), so a stranger suddenly giving them commands could confuse and distract them.

Do steer away from the service dog if you have your own pet walking around. Service dogs, at least in my experience, are not allowed to meet with other dogs/animals when they are working. This goes along the lines of “don’t distract a service dog.” Don’t allow your pet to approach them without at least asking the owner first.  

Do let the owner know if the dog is distracted (e.g., sniffing, staring, walking toward you). People get distracted, but service dogs shouldn’t and are trained not to. That being said, there are plenty of dogs in training around campus, so they may end up nudging your hand if it’s near their face. If something like that does happen, just let the owner know so they can correct the behavior and get the dog to refocus. Resist the urge to talk at the dog — talk to the owner instead!

These are just some of the basics. If you are still interested in knowing more, the internet is a great resource.