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Let them get on with their work: service dog etiquette

Dawnette Brett, whose daughter has had an autism service dog for about two months, said that people need to be aware that the dog is working and help minimize distractions to make its job easier
I am a service dog (Heather Paul-Moment-Getty Images)
"I am a service dog" - this yellow lab is still cute, but it is also working. Service dogs are essential to their owners and should be respected

Dawnette Brett, whose daughter has had an autism service dog for about two months, said that people need to be aware that the dog is working and help minimize distractions to make its job easier.

“Since we’ve gotten our service dog for our daughter,” Brett said, “we’ve learned a lot ourselves, you know, things that we weren’t aware of.”

She said that in her experience, many people are aware of the rule against touching a service dog

That courtesy needs to extend to all distractions.

Service dogs can be very expensive to train – costs range from mere thousands up to tens of thousands of dollars. Dogs are carefully chosen for their temperament and trainability, then further screened for how well they fit with the disability of the person they are meant for.

Although certain breeds are more likely than others to be obedient, calm, patient, and so on, differences between personalities often end up being more important than the breed. For example, a particular Jack Russell Terrier might turn out to be more suited to the profession than a Border Collie or German Shepherd in the same candidate pool.

Training takes years and is specialized.

“We sent tons and tons of videos,” Brett said. “Lots of videos of the different things that… we felt the dog would be a support for. So, they train with the videos and the dog learns the cues.”

Children with autism can be easily overwhelmed and engage in tantrums and self-violence. Everyone involved – especially the child themselves – is in distress. Parents use all the strategies they know to reassure and calm them down.  

Brett said her daughter gets overwhelmed and her hands go to her hair – sometimes pulling it out. Connor, her service dog, is trained to react to that behaviour.

“When she starts getting agitated like that, he will go instantly from being friendly and chill to doing his job,” Brett said. “He will go to her and jump up and start licking her face, and nudging at her hands, you know, to distract her and get her petting him.”

Connor has only been with them since February, but he is proving significant. Brett and her family are still learning their own formalized training. They spent a week in Edmonton studying with the trainers. Once her daughter is more bonded with her dog, a trainer will come to Moose Jaw to teach them more advanced techniques.

All that is to say that there is much more to being a service dog than wearing a vest. They receive years of specialized training from professionals. Not only are they trained to assist with particular disabilities – but they are also trained for the individual they will spend the rest of their lives with.

In March, Brett’s daughter needed her grade 8 vaccinations. Needles have always been traumatic for her. With Connor by her side, it was a different experience.

“She held onto the dog, and put her head on his shoulder and gave him scratches,” Brett said. “And it was over in five minutes. And she walked away completely untraumatized. We’ve never seen that before… And as their bond builds, things will only get better. We’re really excited about the potential (for her).”

The best etiquette is to treat service dogs as serious working professionals, including:

  • Not touching, talking to, feeding, or otherwise distracting the dog.
  • Treating their person as a person, and not asking them about their condition. The dog is there to help feel safe and relaxed – help them to accomplish that.
  • Keep your pets separated from service dogs – don’t let your dog try to play with them, for example.
  • If a service dog becomes distracted or wants your attention, let its owner know. The behaviour may need correcting. Ignore the dog itself.
  • A service dog alone means its owner needs help. They are trained to get attention in emergencies, so take note and follow where the dog leads.
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