Imagine being able to take Fido with you everywhere you go. To the mall, the movies or on a plane. This is the privilege granted to guide and service dogs and their handlers, and it needs to stay this way.
Sorry, Fido [and Fido’s owner]. But you need to stay home for this one. But keep reading: You do need to hear this.
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? You no longer have to worry about leaving your fur baby home, wondering if he’s peed on the floor, chewed up your shoes or worried about how little exercise he’s getting since you left him in his crate when you left the house. Why not take him with you on your afternoon errands? After all, the sign says “Pets Welcome.” No harm, right?
But there is harm. The privilege that allows guide and service dogs to enter public facilities is not there to give handlers an extra advantage or special treatment. It’s there to level the playing field. This is because of two factors: first, service dogs are not pets, and second, service dogs are trained to perform a service that mitigates the challenges of a disability.
When pets are allowed in public spaces where the community gathers, there are three things that can result, and they are what I call the Three D’s: danger, distract and detract. Let’s take a moment to go through each.
It Can Place the Team in Danger
Service dogs are highly trained to provide a particular service to their handler. My guide dog, Saint, spent four months of intensive training to learn how to guide a blind person. This meant learning to avoid obstacles, stop at elevation changes such as stairs, curbs, keep a straight orientation when crossing streets, and how to keep safe around moving traffic. It is a rigorous process, and only 50% of the puppies bred into the guide dog program graduate and are matched with a handler. It is not a job for the faint of heart; it is physically and mentally taxing. The responsibility they carry of ensuring their blind handler stays safe and out of danger is not for just any dog.
But it isn’t only the guide dog that gets trained. Handlers spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month learning to work with their guide dog. It takes upwards of a year to become a solid working team, and a big portion of their success is that both the dog and handler has a trust and respect for the other, particularly in situations that may be dangerous or distracting. That’s how they get through… together.
The world is rife with dangers for people who are blind. While we learn skills and techniques to keep us safe and independent, we are still living in a world that isn’t designed for disabled people and poses many challenges. Drivers of vehicles that don’t check for pedestrians can make crossing busy intersections risky. Encountering aggressive dogs who may be off-leash or not well-controlled pose safety risks for both the dog and handler. A guide dog helps to bear that weight. But it becomes increasingly difficult if the dog gets distracted.
It’s a Distraction
Service dogs may be highly trained, but they are still dogs and thus, will get distracted. They are expected to stay focused and avoid distraction while out in the community. But distractions are everywhere: people, food and other dogs being the most enticing of temptations.
If a working dog does get distracted, often, it takes only a simple verbal or light leash correction to get them back on track. But it can be more. And when a guide dog is distracted, it takes their focus off of their job and their surroundings; their focus transfers to how to get what they’ve just discovered–that piece of pizza on the ground, a pet from that nice lady making kissy noises, or a sniff of that cute girl dog. In this state, without the dog watching out for the safety of their handler, the team may walk straight into danger. Imagine what might happen if a guide dog gets distracted while crossing a busy road? They may veer into the traffic rather than keep a straight line across. I don’t have to imagine–I’ve experienced it. And it’s terrifying.
Guide dogs are inundated with possible distractions whenever they venture out of the house with their handler. And your pet is a perfect opportunity. *sniff sniff*
It Detracts From the Dog’s Purpose
But the greatest problem is a simple one of entitlement. If I get to take my dog with me wherever I go, why can’t you?
It’s simple: My dog is a mobility tool. He keeps me safe. He helps me navigate spaces that are difficult to do independently because of poor or inaccessible design. He levels the playing field, giving me access to equal opportunities that I may not have access to otherwise.
Your pet does not.
If pets are permitted to go places where only service dogs have the privilege, it detracts from the purpose of the service dog. Not only does it make the dog’s job that much harder, but it undermines the dog’s reason for being a service dog; to do its job, the dog needs to stay safe and focused so that it can provide the service it was trained to do. If any dog is allowed anywhere, then the privilege that these dogs have as working members of the community becomes meaningless.
I know it’s hard to watch someone walk into seemingly any establishment they wish with their dog at their side. But it isn’t always easy: almost every handler has experienced denial because of their service dog. Sometimes, this results in the staff learning about the rights of guide and service dogs, but too frequently, the handler is forced to go somewhere else because their legal right to enter a public facility was unjustly refused. And it happens more often than you think. This happens because people are unaware of the laws and rights surrounding guide and service animals, but also because someone has had a negative experience–a disturbance or aggression–by a pet, and to keep their businesses and customers safe, they feel that refusing all animals is the only option.
But in that moment, a disabled person has been denied the access that able-bodied people take for granted because of something that wasn’t their fault.
You might tell me that your dog is trained, and that he’d never do such a thing. He never even barks. To that I say: that’s wonderful! I’m so glad and thankful that you’ve taken the time and energy to train your dog properly. But that still does not give you the right to bring him with you when you go into the community because if you do, you’re undermining the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to train one service dog, and the work they do for one disabled person so that they can live their life with a little less challenge, and a lot more freedom.