Jake, a service dog in Grand Forks, B.C. (Photo courtesy Rae-Lynne Dicks)

Jake, a service dog in Grand Forks, B.C. (Photo courtesy Rae-Lynne Dicks)

The world of working dogs: It’s important to show respect

Service Dogs, Guide Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Pet Dogs – What is the difference and how should we behave around them and their handlers in public spaces?

By Rae-Lynne Dicks

Service Dogs, Guide Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Pet Dogs – working dogs are very much part of society, working closely with humans and sharing our lives. How we behave around them in public is of great importance to them and their handlers.

What is the difference between these different kinds of working dogs, and how should we behave around them and their handlers in public spaces?

• Service Dogs and Guide Dogs are medically required by their handlers, they have undergone several years of training and extensive testing in order to do their jobs, and they are very valuable to their handlers. In B.C. require certification every two years.

Yes, even once certified, a Service or Guide Dog will still require training ongoing for the working life of the dog — the old saying ‘use it or lose it’ is very true.

• Guide Dogs are for persons who are visually blind or almost blind, they typically wear a harness with a metal frame handle and their vest is very clearly marked. Service Dogs are for medical purposes, such as autism, seizures, physical needs for stability (bracing) or mental health diagnosis such as anxiety disorders or PTSD. All Service Dogs are trained to provide specific tasks to their handlers.

All Service and Guide Dogs will be fully vested in attire that clearly marks them as a working dog. And both Service and Guide Dogs are protected under the Canadian Criminal Code from harassment just the same as a Police Dogs.

• Therapy Dogs are dogs that are taken into private spaces to provide comfort to people or intervention for victims of crimes. For example, a Victim Services worker may bring a Therapy Dog to the scene of a crime to assist the victim, or a person might bring a Therapy Dog to visit elderly in old age homes.

Therapy Dogs do have their own training and certification programs but they are not used to work for their handlers in public spaces, hence no government certification is required for public access and they do not have public access to places such as grocery stores or schools to attend with their handlers unless they’ve been contracted by the owners of such places to come in and work for a specific reason — such as if a bank has had an armed robbery and victim services brings a therapy dog to assist the staff.

• Emotional Support Dogs and pets are not trained or tested by any government agency and they do not have public access to indoor spaces such as grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools or hockey games.

I think we can all agree that most pet dogs provide plenty of unconditional love and emotional support to their families.

Jake, a service dog in Grand Forks, B.C. (Photo courtesy Rae-Lynne Dicks)

Jake, a service dog in Grand Forks, B.C. (Photo courtesy Rae-Lynne Dicks)

In public spaces, all dogs should be given the respect of their personal space unless invited by their handlers to pat or address them directly. All handlers of aggressive or leash reactive fearful dogs should move their dog away from whatever it is reacting aggressively to — it could be a human or another dog.

Bracing yourself and holding onto while pulling back on your lunging aggressive dog is not teaching it to stop, nor are your words while your dog is reacting (they cannot hear you in this state). In fact, pulling back on a lunging dog is teaching it to pull harder, while moving your dog away from whatever it is reacting to far enough so that it is no longer reacting will teach it that being aggressive does not achieve its goal.

Service and Guide Dogs and Police Dogs, should NEVER be made the object of ridicule, or the focus of attention by members of the public. In other words, do not touch them, do not peer into their faces to make eye contact with them or speak directly to them while they are vested and working. If you wish to talk about the Guide or Service Dog then speak directly to the dog’s handler with your eyes making eye contact with the handler, not the working dog.

Your questions and positive comments are always welcome, but understand that the dog is working and the handler is in public to do something, like grocery shopping, medical tests, or just walking to get some exercise/training for both of them. The handler of a working Service or Guide Dog is disabled and we have both good and bad days just like anyone else, so if you receive a, “Sorry not today,” to your query please show respect for this response and not take it as your opportunity to lash out rudely to the handler.

Service and Guide and Police Dogs are usually gorgeous specimens of their breed, are always clean and well-groomed; they are extremely well behaved and obedient. Their handlers realize that this makes them attractive to folks who maybe don’t have a pet of their own or who are lonely and in need of some compassion from a well-trained dog. Working Dogs and their handlers are not there to fill a personal need for members of the public, they are not a Therapy Dog.

Most folks in Grand Forks know better than to reach their fingers out to the Police Dog, but for some reason these same folks think that it is okay to do so ‘on the sly’ to a Service or Guide Dog while it is working. Please understand that doing so is taking the dog’s focus away from doing its job for its handler, it is undermining all the training that has been put into the working dog and worse yet it is invading a working dog’s personal space.

A Working Dog was selected from its litter based on its innate traits, and was tested thoroughly throughout every stage of its training for temperament, but please understand it is a live animal and has its own ability to make decisions regardless of all of its training. If you choose to stick your fingers into its face because it’s gorgeous and you just cannot resist, and this Working Service or Guide Dog has ‘had enough’ of intrusions into its personal space that day, then you do run the risk of being bitten, or even just growled at.

Your behavior could have serious consequences for this working Service or Guide Dog; it will be de-certified for public access and ergo not be able to do its job for the disabled person that is its handler and all because you couldn’t keep your fingers to yourself. Does anyone really want to be responsible for that?

In the past month I have had at least one ‘thing’ occur every single time I go out into public in Grand Forks with my Service Dog Jake. It is very difficult to provide education to every individual that we encounter, thus I’ve put together a list of Do’s and Don’ts for everyone to read and hopefully learn from.

Do’s and Don’ts around working Service and Guide Dogs


• Talk directly to the handler of a working Service or Guide Dog. Feel free to ask questions or make positive comments.

• Do respect the personal space of a working Service or Guide Dog just as if they were another human being, albeit attached to or an extension of their handler and as if they are 6 feet tall.

Do Not:

• Do not look directly into the Service or Guide Dog’s eyes/face, they are working.

• Do not walk between a working Service or Guide Dog and their handler.

• Do not dangle items over the head of a working Service or Guide Dog.

• Do not shake things (objects, food, or your fingers) in the face of a working Service or Guide Dog.

• Do not try to touch, trail out your fingers are you walk by, or step on any part of a Service Dog’s body including their tail. We do teach them to tuck their tail in but sometimes the handler does not request this because the handler is in need of the personal space.

• Do not make a game of attempting to sneak up behind a Service Dog to touch it or grab its tail.

• Do not throw objects at or near a Service or Guide Dog, i.e.: it is not funny to throw firecrackers behind a Service or Guide Dog just to get yourself a thrill when they both freak out. Most local working Service Dogs belong to former first responders or veterans; they and their working dogs deserve your respect for their service to the community and country.