If you've been an avid reader of "At A Glacial Pace," for a while, I'm sure you will be familiar with posts that touch on this topic. That said, with it being the last day of International Assistance Dog Week, it wouldn't hurt to go over some common misconceptions about Assistance dogs.
1. As I mentioned earlier in the week, Assistance dogs are not super heroes. It may seem that way sometimes because of the work that they do, the physical tests they must pass, the temperament tests they also have to ace and a few other things, but they are dogs. Just like us, they make mistakes, they have good and bad days and sometimes the temptation of the mummified sausage under the restaurant booth is just too much to resist. I know people who aren't around Assistance dogs may not know this, but saying things such as, "I didn't think guide dogs did that" after your dog has crawled its way to a leftover hotdog bit on a mall floor, is quite aggravating. No, they are not supposed to, but they are dogs.
2. Not all handlers mind if you pet his/her dog. That said, it is very individualistic and is dependent on the dog's personality, what the handler is trying to accomplish at that very moment, what environment he/she is in Etc. The best rule is ask and don't ask while you're reaching for the dog; stick your hands in your pockets if you have to, but ask with your hands in your own personal space. This is for a couple of reasons: A. the handler does not want his/her dog distracted and a person reaching for the dog is a distraction. This can be very dangerous. and B. The handler is probably more likely to oblige, if he/she is in the habit of having his/her dog petted, if you are respectful of his/her personal space. And yes! The dog is our personal space. Asking before petting is probably a good rule for even pet dogs you may encounter on the street. You don't know that dog's history, you don't know if it has been trained to guard. Asking takes all of thirty seconds, so please, just ask.
3. No! My dog does not read street signs or know if the traffic light has changed! We work as a team and I ask my dog to "forward" if I think it is safe to cross the street. As a totally blind person, I know it is safe to cross the street if the traffic going in the same direction I am, is moving. If there is traffic driving across the front of my body, it is not safe to cross. I know this by listening. If, for some reason, I ask my dog to "forward" and it is unsafe, he is taught to ignore the cue. This is called "intelligent disobedience." He is also taught to stop, and in Glacier's case push back if a car drives in front of us and we are already moving. Dogs are colour blind to certain colours, so Glacier probably couldn't tell the difference between red and green. He doesn't read maps either.
4. At home my dog is allowed to be a dog. Some dogs do a lot of work at home, such as a hearing ear dog, but once home Glacier is off duty. He is only on duty when he is wearing his harness. Even if someone has a dog who works at home, that dog has time where he/she is allowed to play and just be a dog. Life can't be all work and no play.
5. Contrary to popular belief, our dogs are not starving. I don't care how cute he looks at you, he is well fed and there are a million reasons why a person should not feed a working dog. First of all, you shouldn't feed anyone's dog without asking. I always made sure that when at the dog park, I asked the dog's owner before handing out treats; the dog could be on a diet to lose weight, maybe it has a wheat allergy or perhaps it has food aggression issues. Working dogs are most often fed at specific times of the day in order to ensure the handler will know approximately what time the dog will need to relieve. This reduces the potential for accidents. Feeding a working dog is distracting and as we already know, distracting a working dog is dangerous! It could make working dogs think that eating people food whenever and wherever it feels like it is okay. So, just don't do it. Most working dogs get fed better than a lot of pet dogs.
6. When the dog is wearing his/her coat/harness/vest or whatever it is that the handler uses to signify the dog's working status, it means that it is working. Even if it is just lying at his/her handler's feet. As long as that working signifier is on, the dog is working. Sometimes I will heel Glacier just on a loose leash when he is still in harness and people will sometimes think that he is no longer working. I guess in part they are right in that he is no longer guiding, but he is not off duty. That means, for me, no petting/feeding/talking to/making googoo eyes at Etc Glacier. All of these behaviors are distracting and-let's say it all together-distracting a working dog is dangerous.
7. This is not so much a dog myth as it is about a specific disability, but I thought it fit. People who are considered to be legally blind are able to work with a dog. You do not have to be totally blind to have a guide dog. In fact, the majority of the visually impaired population is low vision (possessing some usable vision) as opposed to completely blind. That is not to say that low vision people do not need guide dogs because there are probably times where they may need the dog more. Some people are light sensitive, for example, and being out in the sun plays tricks on their eyes,. So, the dog comes in handy. It all depends on the person and their need. Someone who is low vision and gets a dog, is not any less in need than a totally blind person. Simply put, they are not taking a dog away from someone else who needs it more.
8. In both Canada and the United States, all service dogs must be spayed or neutered by law. I think that is pretty self explanatory. We can't have dogs going around in public marking territory or looking to make a family.
9. Assistance dogs can be, by law, asked to leave a public place if it is misbehaving or filthy. Now, it gets murky because one person's version of "misbehaving" is not another's. So, if you're thinking about kicking a service dog out of your store, I'd think about it really hard first. It is illegal, other than for the two aforementioned situations, to kick a service dog out of a public place. That includes rental properties. If the property has been advertised publicly I.E., billboard, housing list on the internet or magazine Etc. that rental property has become a public place. People with service dogs cannot be denied access to public property, goods and services and cannot be charged an extra "pet" or "cleaning" fee. The laws are based on the person with the disability, not the dog, so that means puppy raisers can be legally asked to leave a public place. That said, I really hope business owners do not deny puppy raisers access as they are performing a vital service to us blind people who need our dogs to be well socialised. Whew! That was a long one.
10. Service dogs do not bite! Sometimes I want to say "yes" to this question because I know the petting will start after I say "no." I don't because I'm a horrible liar and because I feel that owning a service dog is a privilege not a wright and if I misrepresent my guide dog school, I am doing them an injustice. But that is my own personal feelings and one of these days when someone asks "does your guide dog bite?" I think the right person will say "yes." Service dogs could not be out in public if they are aggressive. A lot of program dogs are "career changed" (become someone's very loved pet, or even find new work), if they show aggressive tendencies. Walking around with a guide dog that bit little children would probably be frowned upon. So, no, they shouldn't bite, but that doesn't give a person license to pet. (Refer to number 1).
With that, International Assistance Dog Week comes to a close for 2011. I hope everyone has enjoyed reading about Assistance dogs as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. Know that the opinions expressed here are my own and other handlers may feel differently. The best thing is to ask.
I also want to say thank you to all of the volunteers, trainers and other staff that work at the service dog schools. Without these people, many of us would not travel with the confidence or excitement that we do with our dogs by our sides. Thank you.