Service Dogs: Rules for Public Interaction

The relationship between master and dog guide is built on hard work and consistent training. My service animal was trained […]

The relationship between master and dog guide is built on hard work and consistent training. My service animal was trained to guide me and his main function is to make sure we get to our destination safely. “We don’t simply pick up the harness and say, ‘Take me to Walgreen’s’ said Rebecca Kragnes, President of the Minnesota Guide Dog users (MNGDU) in a recent interview. “Rather, I instruct my guide to go forward, and that is what he does as we maneuver on sidewalks and around obstacles in our way.” Each dog that graduates as a guide has undergone at least a year and a half of training with extremely talented and gifted instructors. These dogs are different from average pets, and Kragnes cautioned the public about several taboos when relating to dog guides.

The first taboo is petting a dog guide. Although some people allow their animal to be stroked by strangers while on the job, I prefer people to keep their hands off of my dog while it is in harness. A guide is not a pet. Always ask somebody who has a service animal if his/her dog can be petted. If the owner of the assistance animal agrees, he/she will most likely take time to remove its harness. The harness is what cues a service animal it is in a working mode. Mrs. Kragness stated, “I want to make sure the bond is solid between us before I allow that kind of interaction. As a general rule, never touch, talk to, feed, or otherwise interact with a dog guide in or out of harness without the handler’s permission. Some handlers have an absolute no interacting policy.”

Another taboo is feeding a dog guide. Never feed a guide food other then what it is used to eating. Frisco, my retired guide dog worked for at least ten years. He was sometimes slipped food by people who did not realize how much damage their well-intentioned actions caused both the dog and the master. After all, I fed him pretty well. But the temptation for some folks is to feed a dog scraps from their plates, food they’ve discarded, or to hand-feed the dog a treat like a cookie. What all people need to be aware of is that a dog guide is orientated to one type of food. If the service animal is given something it is not used to, it will get terribly ill. One day when I was on my way to work, a lady told me that my dog had relieved himself three times. And each time he discharged a bloody smelly diarrhea. This was almost fatal for Frisco; it took a week for him to recover from what somebody thought was an act of kindness. I missed a week of work to give him around-the-clock medical help. For the first four days of recovery, it was hard for me to get Frisco to drink water. The veterinarian gave my dog a week-long prescription of antibiotics and Imodium LD. Nobody other than the owner should feed the dog.

Another problem is people who allow their aggressive unleashed pets to roam loose without supervision. Frisco and I were attacked five times over an eight year period of time. Though he was uninjured, some assistance animals experience trauma or bite wounds that sometimes results in the unwanted and unnecessary premature retirement of the guide. Owners of aggressive dogs have a responsibility to keep their animals under control. It takes only a mere seconds for an unprovoked dog attack, but it may take months or years for the dog guide to recover from such an incident. Fortunately for Frisco and me, the aggressive dog attacks were single incidents that took place over many years and he continued to work until he was ready to retire.

Each of these taboos is just a basic application of common sense. A dog guide is an extension of its owner. Interfering with a dog while on duty could lead to bodily harm of both the dog and the person it guides. “People who are not well informed about etiquette think nothing of trying to feed, pet, or distract the dog in some way without obtaining permission. It’s refreshing to see more and more parents telling their kids they shouldn’t touch a working dog. It’s even more refreshing and quite amusing to see kids lecturing their parents about inappropriate interactions with our guides,” said President Kragnes.

Of course, assistance animals need time to run and romp like any dog. These service animals like to work, but when the harness is removed, the helper dog knows it is off duty. These periods of relaxation are necessary for a balance between work and play.

Other issues which are concerns of dog guide user groups are long- and short-range travel, public transportation, access in public buildings, legislation, how to apply for a guide dog, and helpful tips about how to care for your service animal year round. To learn more about these and other important issues, email Kragnes at rebeccak@tcq.net or visit her Web site at www.rebeccak.com.

Besides being president of the Minnesota Guide Dog Users (MNGDU), Rebecca Kragnes is also a professional musician. She has a variety of CD’s for sale. To find out how to get any of them, contact Kragnes at the address cited above.