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— April 1, 2014 —

How to handle crossing paths with a Service Dog.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

As we learn just how much dogs can assist us, Service Animals are becoming more common in the U.S. How should we handle encountering a Service Animal when we are our with our dogs?

I recently got a call from a young lady who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. She lives with a dog which she has had for a few months. She took Kay in as a rescue and intended to have the dog as a comfort animal for her nerve pain and needed the dog to perform a couple of simple assistance behaviors.

I got the call, though because Kay had been displaying some lunging behaviors while on leash. We did an evaluation and determined that the reactivity was not severe.

I thought that we could help her past the lunging through training and behavioral modification.

After only one lesson, I got a call from the owner. She was upset and said she could not keep her dog because she had been in a fight.

While talking to her, I learned that Kay had pulled her down in her chair and gotten in a fight with a dog. This had happened because someone had allowed their dog to run up and jump on Kay’s back.

We determined that in every instance of lunging, Kay was subjected to an unruly dog that was not being controlled by its owner.

I decided to take Kay in for boarding and training to truly get to the bottom of her behavior. Kay has been totally solid around dogs in the facility. She is essentially ambivalent towards dogs, which is the perfect demeanor for a Service Animal. She has shown zero aggression, and is pretty dis-intereted in interacting with other dogs. This goes doubly when she has her “Service Dog vest” on. When she is working, Kay never leaves my side and will hardly look at dogs.

I have gone so far as to take her out into the playgroup to work. While she initially had a difficult time with the large number of loose dogs, she has gotten more confident with ongoing experience.

In another life, I was an X-Ray Technologist. In fact, I occasionally still work part-time in the field. I had a visually impaired patient recently while working at a local hospital. After my conversations with Kay’s owner, I asked this lady what she has experienced with her Guide Dog. I asked if people ever let their dog do inappropriate things with her and her Service Animal. She said absolutely. She had been charged by off leash dogs, had playful dogs jump on her dog and had people try to pet her dog while it was working.

Why I tell these stories is to demonstrate a point. Service Animals are critical parts of their human’s life. A Guide Dog who is attacked or harassed by an off leash dog can potentially lead his human into danger. A Service Dog with a young girl in a wheel chair can injure her owner if a loose dog is allowed to jump on her back.

Service Animals are not pets. They are performing a very important job and it is imperative that we as dog owners do not interfere or allow our dogs to interfere with them. If I see a dog in a working vest or harness, I pretend the dog is invisible. If I happen to have a dog with me, I will make a concerted effort to avoid my dog engaging the Service Animal in any way. I advise everyone to do the same.

Some folks have told me that they pity the dog, like maybe the dog just wants to run and play. I can guarantee you that a Service Animal is happy with their life and they do have times to just be a dog. While they are helping their human cross Michigan Avenue is not that time.

So please, remember. Service Animals, while working should be invisible. They often have a life on the line while they are working and it is our job to let them do theirs.

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