As a service dog handler, interacting with the general public is pretty much unavoidable. Seeing a dog where dogs don’t normally go is truly spectacular to some people, and they will draw attention to it. If you’re struggling with dealing with the general public as a handler, check out these tips from The New Handler’s Guide.
The People You’ll Meet
The general public reacts to service dogs in a colorful variety of ways. Get a feel for the people you’ll run into when working a service dog.
The most common person you’ll run into is The Squealer. The Squealer is vocal about their excitement at seeing a cute dog in public. They may point, bounce, giggle, and tell their friends to look too. The cuter the dog, the louder they are. Dogs in shoes bring in the most squealers, so be prepared for a cacophony when it’s too hot for bare paws. A subtype of The Squealer is The Fearful Squealer, who is afraid of dogs for any number of reasons and will run away at the sight of your dog while squeaking loudly. Though loud, Squealers typically won’t attempt to touch your dog, simply content with watching it or booking it outta there. Telling a Squealer, “Please don’t stare, he’s working,” may deter them, but ignoring them is easier and less exhausting.
Another common and more obstructive personality is The Petter. The Petter will be insistent on touching your dog, with or without permission. Patches on your dog’s vest reading “Stop! Do Not Pet!” do not cause even a second of hesitation for The Petter, because when they see a dog they become illiterate. The Petter doesn’t recognize when a dog is working and may even attempt to greet your dog while it’s in the middle of tasking. A firm, “Don’t touch my dog, he’s working,” may deter a Petter, but it may also cause them to become confused and angry. Confront at your own risk. Some Petters are a little more sly, and become Drive-By Petters. Drive-By Petters will do their best to touch your dog without you noticing, opting to reach out when you cross paths. Resist the urge to smack their hands.
A slightly scarier member of the general public is The Arguer, who takes issue with you for no good reason. They may have a problem with the fact that you won’t allow them to pet your dog, or may say you shouldn’t have a service dog at all because you don’t “look disabled enough.” The Arguer cares about nothing other than being rude to complete strangers. They’re the same type of people who feel that they should be entitled to the use of expired coupons. Sometimes you can walk away from an Arguer, but be aware that an Arguer may even follow you to continue their argument. Arguers cause some people intense anxiety, so know that you don’t have to fight back. Get an employee, manager, or security guard and tell them another patron is harassing you.
The Rambunctious Child
It’s astounding that, sometimes, your service dog is better behaved than some people’s children, but it’s a fact of life. Running into The Rambunctious Child in public can be extremely frustrating. The Rambunctious Child has not been taught that running up to a strange dog is not only rude, but exceptionally dangerous. The Rambunctious Child may grab your dog, pull its tail, or interrupt its tasking. Intercepting The Rambunctious Child can be dangerous, so take caution: you may accidentally run into an Entitled Mom. Entitled Moms feel that their special children should be allowed to do anything, including interrupting essential medical equipment. You cannot win an argument with an Entitled Mom, who is the boss-level Arguer. Simply tell Entitled Mom and Rambunctious Child that your dog is working and walk away.
The Jokester thinks he’s a goddamn riot. Usually an older man, The Jokester often utters the phrase, “If I’d known dogs were allowed, I would’ve brought mine!” and then laughs uproariously. They may ask you what services your dog provides, then wink. They might bark, howl, or yap at your dog. When confronted, The Jokester tells you to pull out the stick from up your ass, but often slinks away. Feel free to tell The Jokester that your dog is more intelligent than them.
Similar to The Jokester is The Storyteller, who just has to tell you about their brother’s cousin’s granddaughter’s service dog. Oh, and they used to have a dog just like yours, but bigger, a different color, and with different fur. But he just died, they’ll tell you. So many dead dog stories. Run away when they aren’t looking.
The PETA Member
There are extremists in everything, and the service dog world is no exception. The PETA Member, one of the most aggravating members of the general public, feels that your dog should not be a service dog, because working is clearly cruel and unusual abuse for high-drive dogs! How dare you force your poor puppy to not interact with everyone who wants to pet it?! The PETA Member may try to take your dog’s leash out of your hand, detach it from a wheelchair, or otherwise attempt to get it away from you. They may insult or degrade you and claim that they’re going to call the police to accuse you of animal abuse. Know that The PETA Member is full of empty threats, but you are welcome to get angry at them. Flex how much your dog loves to work, then dip. They’re harmless but annoying, like mosquitoes. Squash them.
The Fake Service Animal Owner
The most potentially dangerous member of the general public is The Fake Service Animal Owner. The Fake Service Animal Owner is someone who brings their pet into public simply because they want to. The most common type is the ESA K9 Handler, who often has their dog in a grocery cart or—even more ridiculously—a sling or Baby Björn. They are deeply delusional, completely convinced that their untrained pet has all the same rights as a fully trained service dog because “it helps them feel better.” The ESA K9 Handler is dangerous because, oftentimes, their dog is not under control. Service dogs often get attacked by these dogs, or distracted to the point that they do not task when needed. This can result in severe medical side effects for service dog handlers.
Less common are those who bring cats, birds, small mammals, or reptiles into places that aren’t pet-friendly, but they should still be stopped. If you run into The Fake Service Animal Owner, book it in the other direction. Get a manager or security guard to remove them, and remind them of their rights to remove unruly or dangerous animals whether or not they’re labelled as service animals.
Overall, remember that your safety and your dog’s safety are more important than proving a point. If you feel unsafe because of a member of the general public, get an authority figure to help you.