How to Handle Public Reactions to Your Service Dog

How to Handle Public Reactions and Questions About Your Service Dog

Imagine you need a few grocery items at the store. You park in your usual area, grab a shopping cart, and begin wandering through the isles. All is going as planned until you turn the corner, and you see a woman with a flamingo walking on a leash! The woman is acting normally, shopping around as if she weren’t walking a tall, neon pink flamingo through the grocery store. Naturally, you’d have some questions! Why is she shopping with a giant pink bird? Do they actually allow birds in grocery stores? Do flamingos bite? These may be just a few of the questions you’d have.

Having a Service Dog in Public

The scenario with the flamingo is much like having a service dog. While walking around with a canine may not be as shocking as with a giant tropical bird, this is often the level of surprise some members of the general public experience upon stumbling across a service dog team. Frequently, while out with a service dog, you’ll find that many people have inappropriate reactions to spotting your four-legged partner.

Thankfully, most will carry on about their business. However, it’s not unheard of for grown adults to scream and run away. Some people are seriously fearful of dogs, however, most inappropriate reactions are simply because the person was caught by surprise.

While the concept of a service dog isn’t exactly new, still, most people don’t have or see service dogs. To see a dog in a store or restaurant doesn’t fit into many people’s expectations of “normal” for that situation. Therefore, they naturally have questions and are curious.

Common Questions

Here are some questions frequently asked by members of the general public:

What kind of service dog is that?

Is he friendly? Can I pet him?

What type of dog is that?

How can I get a service dog?

Does he ever get to play and just be a dog?

Are you training him?

These are the ones I usually get every day, as someone who’s been working with service dogs for over six years. Sometimes, I just want to do my shopping, and get out. I don’t always want to stop and chat with every other person that has a question. However, I don’t want to seem rude, so if I’m in a hurry, I’ll answer with one or two words, a smile, and keep walking.

Negative Interactions

Unfortunately, not all of the questions and comments I get are polite. In fact, many are rather rude and invasive, even if the person may not have meant it that way. Walking around with a service dog can make a previously invisible disability, broadcasted all over, wherever you go. Even though many people don’t know the ins and outs of the service dog world, by now, most are aware that it has to do with a disability. Occasionally, strangers will flat out ask me, “so, why do you have a service dog?”

People are Genuinely Curious

It’s important to remember the vast majority of invasive questions such as this, come from a place of curiosity and ignorance. With that in mind, if I’ve got the time, I’ll educate the person. “That question may be considered rude by someone else, but I don’t mind answering it. I have autism, and my dog is trained to help me be more independent.” I say, waiting for the next question, which is either, “what does he do?” Or, my personal favorite, the person then starts a monologue in an attempt to relate themselves to what I’ve just said. “Oh! My brother’s wife’s best friend had a child with autism! They..[insert story here].” This is normally when I smile and nod, and wait for them to finish.

Sometimes seeing your dog will remind them of a dog they had or knew. Sometimes that dog has passed away. And every time, the person always feels the needs to share that story with me! It never fails, I can’t go a week without hearing a story about someone’s pet that passed! I laugh now and may be slightly annoyed, as it has nothing to do with what I’m usually doing at the time. But I remind myself that it’s someone’s attempt to relate to my “situation”.

Understanding and Education

I think to have a service dog, you’ve got to have a sense of humor, and remember that we must give the general public the same understanding that we expect them to give us.

The idea of a service dog for a person that doesn’t have a visual or physical impairment is relatively new. Education is the key to understanding. However, when we don’t have time to get into the whole thing for the tenth time while trying to grab a gallon of milk, a few short words and a smile will suffice.

Kaelynn Partlow
Kaelynn Partlow was diagnosed with autism, and multiple learning disabilities and ADHD at the age of 10. As an adult, she works as a behavioral therapist, helping children on the autism spectrum. She's in the process of training her second autism service dog, as her previous dog has retired.