You are driving or walking to work one day, and you see a person walking alongside a beautiful dog. The dog is wearing a harness. What should you do? Should you talk to and pet the dog? Should you give it attention? The answer is no. Maybe you’ve never seen a blind person walking with a dog, or maybe you have but you didn’t know how to respond. Here are some tips that might help you out when you encounter a person and his/her service dog.
During my 3-week class at the Seeing Eye, I learned basic rules to working with my dog. Sometimes these rules didn’t always make sense which is why the instructors always gave us a reason why the rule is put in place. When I first put the harness handle in my hand, I learn the most basic and most important commands to give the dog. The command words are forward, left, right, and hup up which means to go faster. The word steady is used if you want the dog to slow down. Always, before you give the command, it is important to say the dog’s name. So, you would say: “Juno, forward”. Whenever the blind person and the dog approach a set of stairs, a street corner, or a curb, the dog is to slow down and stop. The user can feel the difference in pace in the harness handle. If the dog does not stop, the owner is instructed by the trainer to correct the dog. The dog is given a verbal command followed by a leash correction. The verbal command is the word “pfui”. I am unsure where this word originates from, but we use this word instead of the word “no” because “no” is so common. Once the dog becomes extremely familiar with the word, a leash correction becomes unnecessary. However, a correction is not needed at all if the dog stops when he or she is supposed to. When this happens, the owner praises and pets the dog to let him or her know they did a wonderful job. There are other commands such as sit, down, and rest. We use the word rest rather than stay because we want our companions to know that they have worked hard, so now we want them to take a break and stay right where they are. Along with these commands, we learned rules that the general public should follow in order to enhance and not hinder the teamwork of the owner and the dog.
When you are a dog lover like I am, you may find it extremely difficult to avoid petting any dog you see. I can be sitting off in the distance, here a bark and a jingling of tags and get excited because I know that a dog is approaching. However, it is crucial that a dog guide, or any service dog for that matter, should not be petted unless permission is given by the owner. Whenever the harness or vest is on, that dog has a job to do and must not be distracted. Even if a service dog is laying down, you should not pet it when it is in harness. Believe me, the dogs want to be petted. My dog, Joba, will stare at you with sad, puppy dog eyes if you don’t pet him. However, petting a dog while he is working can cause the dog to be distracted. It can be very dangerous when a dog guide is distracted. If he is distracted, he is not paying attention. And, if he is not paying attention, it places the owner in danger. The owner trusts that dog to keep him or her safe, but if a dog is distracted while crossing the street, there is always the possibility that the dog will not see that car cutting through the light. There is something else you may want to remember.
Always show the dog and its owner respect. Avoid throwing food for the dog to retrieve. Unless stated otherwise by the owner, the owner should be the only one to feed his or her guide. I suppose you could say this is a rule I follow. Some owners do not mind when another person gives his or her dog treats, but I prefer to be the one to give the treat. I want my dog to know that the only place he can get food is from my hand or his dog bowl which is provided by me. I am the dog’s primary caregiver.
I hope you don’t feel like I’ve overwhelmed you with rules. There are a lot of important things you should remember when encountering a service dog and his or her owner. But what I want you to remember the most is to always ask questions. I have a lot of people ask me if they can pet my dog, and if I’m honest, I love to hear that question. When I hear this question, I feel that they are showing respect towards my dog and myself. If his harness is on, I usually tell them no and explain that the harness means he is working. If I have time, I take his harness off so a person can greet him. Of course, as I am often waiting for the buses, I refrain from taking the harness off because I don’t want to miss my bus and I want Joba to be paying attention to only me. However, if you come to visit me, his harness will most likely be off, and I would love if you played with him. I think some believe that working dogs are never free, but this isn’t true at all. Working dogs are allowed the freedom to play just like pet dogs. Joba is spoiled. That’s right. He gets to jump up in my lap when I’m sitting in the recliner. He is very playful and will bring his bone to you the moment you walk through the door. Rules for these working dogs are very important, but whenever you feel unsure or you just want to know more, don’t be afraid to ask. I love bragging about my wonderful boy.