One often overlooked challenge is that service dog handlers must prepare themselves for the public and their actions. Service dog harassment is still far too common.
The public’s reactions can easily make or break a handler’s day. I experience this regularly. People usually tell me not to care or not to take it personally, but I do, and yes, I’ve tried not to. That’s easier said than done.
Common Service Dog Harassment
Some days, service dog handlers look a little more “normal” than other days. This makes people confront us publicly and question our need for a service dog because we don’t look disabled.
Sometimes people question service dog handlers if they are eligible to use the disabled person’s parking spots at retail outlets.
Once, a grown man pulled my service dog’s tail in an elevator. He let go when I turned around and acted as if nothing had happened. That is service dog harassment and can land you in jail for 6 months in California (California Penal Code Section 365.6).
People have barked and growled at us. People followed and filmed us.
Many things people do are hard to ignore or address. The way you react or don’t will affect the rest of your day. It depends on you. It’s a good idea to plan your responses so you are ready to address situations the way you want. Preparing ahead of time makes a big difference.
Examples of How I Respond
Here are some examples of how I handle this kind of service dog harassment. Maybe these can give you some ideas. I recommend you choose what is best for your mental health and your dog.
- First and foremost, I will advocate for my dog and his safety. That may include blocking a person’s physical access to him or touching my dog to get him refocused after a person distracted him.
- I sometimes go out with my headphones in. That gives me more peace as I can’t hear people’s comments or questions.
- If I feel up for it, I will educate people on why their behavior is harmful. Many honestly don’t know they are committing service dog harassment.
- People often start talking about dogs in some context when we’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or when we walk in. Frequently, other patients want to engage with my dog or me. Depending on how I feel, I don’t mind talking about my dog as long as they leave him alone.
- Some doctor’s offices bring us to the back sooner and out of the public waiting room. I like that, but I know their motives may be more about the perceived disruption of a dog in their waiting room than a concern for my comfort. I don’t care, as it is to my benefit, regardless.
- At grocery checkouts, we are often a magnet and draw a crowd. People take pictures and want to chat. Stores regularly open a new checkout register to get us out of the store faster. Again, fine with me as it’s to my benefit.
These are some of my experiences with service dog harassment in public over the years. It took some time not to be too intimidated by the people or the environment to respond appropriately.
Preparing for different scenarios and how to react takes practice. If you need to, rehearse at home what you’re going to say and know how you will respond. It will help prepare you for high-anxiety situations in public.