Blue Path Service Dog sitting

A Service Dog Mantra: Always Ask

By: Melissa Davis, Puppy Raiser

Suzie in a “down stay”, wearing her vest looking directly at the camera. This photograph was taken during an outside gathering of staff and students at Regent University. There were 100+ people around us, and she was happily settled in their midst!

If you see someone working with a service dog, or a puppy-in-training, please always ask before interacting with the dog. The handler may say “no”, and that’s okay. It’s not because they are mean, or because they do not understand how beautiful their dog is, or because they do not like you. It\’s because at that moment, it’s not what the dog needs.

For example, I was reading at Starbucks with Suzie who was doing an amazing job, including quickly settling when she encountered a very large (adorable) and excited (pet) dog who came in with its owner to pick up a mobile order. Suzie had been happily content, between my feet for about an hour when a woman proceeded to strike up a lovely conversation about puppy raising and service dogs. As our conversation ended, she then (without asking) gave Suzie a scratch. If she had asked me, I would have declined the scratch for Suzie, because due to the way we were sitting, I knew Suzie was going to stare at the woman and then bark ( a single at a time) at her for more attention. Which is exactly what happened.

As I was trying to redirect Suzie so we could complete our time at Starbucks on a positive note, the woman came over and again, without asking, gave Suzie a farewell pat and scratch behind the ears. I asked her kindly to not interact with Suzie because she was misbehaving and the attention was reinforcing the behavior. She responded: \”I am just saying goodbye.\”

To the woman, this was very innocent behavior – just giving Suzie a few simple scratches. Suzie was not working in the field, guiding me somewhere; her action did not create an unsafe situation for me. Innocent right? What she doesn\’t know is that she was actually reinforcing behavior that I have been working very hard to fix.

Dogs are beautiful and young Labradors are especially irresistible. They pull you in with their big beautiful eyes and sweet faces. But a service dog (or service dog in training) is not there for you. Please always ask before you interact with them. With the dogs I raise, I want to give them opportunities to practice people greetings and appropriate interaction with people while in public. But to do that successfully, sometimes that means I need to say \”no\” because at that particular moment, Suzie may not be successful.

My greatest hope for these dogs, and the reason my husband and I raise, is that they will change the world for a family. One day Suzie will bring safety, security, peace, companionship and love not just to a single child who happens to be on the autism spectrum, but their whole family. One day she will open doors for a child to experience the world in a way that was impossible without her gentle and reassuring presence. Suzie is an incredible dog, and every dog we have raised is incredible in their own right.

I am so honored to be able to be a small portion of her journey. And believe it or not, I actually wish I could say “yes” to everyone who wanted to pet her because Suzie is so incredibly wonderful. She is sweetness and sunshine in a furry little body. To interact with Suzie is to be in the presence of pure joy and love and I do want to share her with you. But more than that, I want her to be successful in what she was born to do. And so sometimes, that means I have to say \”no.\”

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