Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

I am not cruel to my service dog

I was at the park walking my service dog and a woman told me to give him a break and take him to the dog park nearby so he could “be a dog”. I explained that I could not, and before I had a chance to explain why, she became agressive.

This reminded me of the PETA supporter who, years ago, yelled at me that I was abusing my (previous) service dog by making her work. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about service dogs, and I’ll try to clear a few things here.

Had I had the time, and had the woman this morning listened, this is what I would have told her:

The fact is my assistance dog, and nearly all the assistance dogs I’ve come across in the last 15 years have been loved, well treated, and thoroughly happy.

And I’d have explained further with this information.

People can’t pet service dogs

I don’t let people pet my service dog. I’m not being mean to the dog, nor to people. This is a question of safety, for both my dog and me.

If my dog learns that it’s ok to pay attention to people, it could lead to very dangerous situations. Imagine that we’re at a street corner and he is paying attention to the person next to us. He won’t be listening or reacting to my command as quickly (or perhaps at all), and we could get hit by a car.

There are also people that are afraid of dogs. If my dog learns that it’s ok to sniff at strangers, we could be causing problems for them. It’s important that the dog remains focused on me.

Rest assured, my assistance dog gets a lot of loving, petting and cuddling from me. He loves attention and I’m not shy about giving it to him.

I don’t give out my dog’s name

A lot of people ask me what my dog’s name is. And I don’t give his name out, because it can cause problems. I used to give my previous service dog’s name freely, but people would also use it freely, and it caused problems for us. So now, I don’t give his name out. This means random strangers can’t say, for example, “Fido, SIT!” and my dog won’t be tempted to obey. Did I mention it’s for his safety as well as mine?

Service dogs can’t go to the dog park (or interact with other dogs)

I do occasionally take my mobility dog to the dog park. Usually very late at night or very early in the morning, when there are no other dogs present. Because I won’t let him play with other dogs. I’m not being mean to the dog. This is, also, a question of safety for both my dog and me.

If my dog learns it’s ok to pay attention or play with other dogs, he could decide to go play with any random dog being walked when we’re working together. For instance, imagine that he’s pulling my wheelchair and decides to veer off the path to go play with the dog on the other side of the street? I could fall our of my chair and hurt myself. But because his harness is hooked to my wheelchair, if I fall, he could get injured as well.

Dog wearing a harness strapped to the front of a wheelchair
My dog in his harness, pulling my wheelchair.

Not to mention that not all dogs are friendly to other dogs. Even if I let him play with other dogs, I certainly wouldn’t let him approach strange dogs we don’t know because he could get attacked.

Yes, it’s important for my mobility assistance dog to be able to let out steam once in a while. That’s why I have a 10 meter (30 foot) leash that I use to let him lose in the park when the dog park is otherwise occupied. He gets to go play, sniff around (only where it’s safe and there’s no crud for him to catch), and run around like a wild thing.

Service dogs can’t play with balls

I don’t let my mobility dog play with balls, whether small tennis balls or larger soccer balls. I’m not being mean to the dog. This is a question of safety, for my dog and for me.

If he learns it’s ok to pay attention to balls, he could take off after an errant ball that makes it over the fence of the school yard. Or he could pay too much attention to the soccer match at the park and endanger both of us.

Don’t worry though, he’s got toys and loves playing with them. Just not balls…

Dog with a plush turtle toy and a rubber ring toy
With two of his favourite toys.

Service dogs love to work

A few weeks ago a man was walking his dog in our direction. He stepped off the sidewalk and told his dog “Get out of the way. That dog works for a living, unlike you, lazy lump!”

My mobility dog does a lot of things for me. The two main tasks he does are pulling my wheelchair and picking things off the floor for me. But he also “works” for me every time we’re out and about. His job is to be with me and accompany me, and to pull my wheelchair, and to pick things off the ground, and to sit, and lay down, and stay, and come, and, and and. He’s a service dog, he works for a living. But he could be a pet and learning tricks every day. He’d love “working”.

He is well rewarded for a job well done, too. He gets fed, receives high value treats (yum, that dried bison liver is so excellent!), receives cuddles, etc.

What would be cruel would be to NOT stimulate his intellect. A bored dog is an unhappy dog, and can land in all kinds of trouble.

He so loves working for me that he sometimes does things unasked. When he’s happy, his tail wags like a whip. It’s not unusual that he’ll swipe the TV’s remote control off the coffee table. When that happens, without being asked, he jumps and turns around, picks the remote and brings it back. All the while his tail is still wagging!

Let’s face it, we call it “work”. To him, it’s all a game and it’s mentally and physically rewarding.

Dogs are pack animals

Dogs are happier when they are in a pack – with their humans, with other dogs, etc. My service dog is *always* with me. Whenever and wherever I go, he gets to accompany me.

Dog laying down in front of the gate desk at the airport.
About to board a flight for the United States.

I was told a few months ago that I was ill treating my assistance dog by the mere fact that I was making him work (this is a common complaint from random strangers). Taking a leaf off another service dog owner, I asked this person if she had a dog herself. She said “yes”. I then asked her where her dog was. She said the dog was at home. I finally asked her if she thought her dog would prefer to be “working” and being with her all the time, or being home alone most days. She sputtered and walked away without answering.

Dog laying down beside my wheelchair with a Drupal Montreal towel on his back.
Beside me at an Open Source conference.

Service dogs are not treated badly

Why would I treat my dog badly when I rely on him so much. Setting aside the fact that I love him and that he’s a great friend, it behoves me to treat him well so he remains healthy and able to help me for a long while to come.

Dog in a bed, off the floor, with a soft mattress under him and a blanket over him.
He has a comfortable bed and blanket for cold winter nights

Dog sleeping on his side, spread out, with his back legs up on the wall.
It is clear that he can relax and sleep in any position he thinks comfortable.

Conclusion

When you see a service dog and his human next time, remember that we are working together and taking good care of each other. Remember that we want to remain safe. Avoid the temptation to pet or talk to the dog. And do think about how happy and healthy he is.