Since my dog, Bronco, is an eye-catching German Shepherd, I often have people approach and ask me if they can pet him (or don’t even ask, just try to drive-by pet). I guess I can’t blame them. He looks like a large, cuddly, silver fox.
The problem is, I can’t have people pet him. He’s a great dog, but it’s a problem to have him distracted. It’s always a worry that a child might scream in his face or step on his feet, and though he’s tolerant, I can never be 100% positive how he might react.
On top of that, I have to have him paying attention to me – no one else.
You might think that people would see vest patches that say “DO NOT PET” and leave your dog alone.
Unfortunately, many people seem to become blinded by the cuteness or novelty of your dog standing in line in front of them in the store.
Before you know it, these people are trying to elbow past you to pet your working service dog and you’re gaping like a fish, unsure of what to say to a person who has forgotten common courtesy and how to read.
So how can you tell people to leave your service dog alone without coming across as rude?
Honestly, there is no one thing you can say that will always come across as nice to all people. However, there are some quite a few different things you can try and see which ones you’re most comfortable with.
Keep your vest uncluttered and simple. DO NOT PET should be huge and high contrast (red/black words on white, white words on red/black) or it can be a pictograph. Here’s a good example.
There are also leashes like this that might catch someone’s eye if they miss the vest.
A different breed of dog
People don’t want to pet a Doberman as often as a Golden Retriever. Your breed choice can factor in to how often people bother you.
If you have a Catahoula Leopard Dog, expect have people bothering you every five steps asking you what breed of dog you have and wanting to pet it.
Teach Your Dog to Ignore
Something that is a good idea to teach your dog is to totally ignore strangers petting them unless you give them word otherwise (usually a release word like “free” or “go ahead”).
And by ignore, I mean your dog doesn’t move a muscle. No tail wagging, eye contact or anything. This can help turn people off.
Body blocking is when you move to stand in front of your dog, so a person can physically not reach the dog. This is what I use most often, so I have time to say “Please don’t pet my dog.” Otherwise, people are often petting before I can think of something to say.
Make sure to say please! You can still be nice while asking people not to touch your dog. It comes out a lot nicer than “Don’t pet my dog.” Even little kids respond quite well to a request like “Please don’t pet my dog.”
If you need to, you can briefly explain “He’s working right now and if he gets distracted, I could get hurt.”
Get Firm if Insistent
Don’t be afraid to say “Sorry, no. Have a nice day.” and move away quickly if you need to. That way you don’t have to deal with any awkwardness or continued presses for petting.
Really, don’t be afraid to just walk away!
These are those people who walk up from behind you and pat your dog on the head and hurry off. There’s not really a way to prevent these people from bothering you, unless you want to wear a shirt that says “Do Not Pet My Dog” on the back. (That doesn’t exist, by the way. Someone should make one.)
Even then, these type of people would probably ignore it.
Hand Out Cards or Pamphlets
If you want people to understand why you’re saying no, but don’t want to explain it every time, you could type up an explanation on a little card, tell people “No. Thank you for asking.” and hand off the card as you say “Have a nice day.”
This is also useful in cases where a store owner confronts you and insists your dog is not allowed. Many people carry mini laminated cards of the ADA law (or state law, in the case of SDiT) just in case.
People are less likely to bother you if you don’t look them in the eyes. Avoid eye contact or smiling at people and they’re more likely to leave you alone. Don’t feel bad about it! No one at the store will care.
Try to walk with purpose. Make a list before you go to the store and plan out where you’re going. If you can avoid browsing while people are nearby, do it. This will cut down on your stops a lot.
Be prepared to ignore glances, smiles and stares and to speed up subtly when people look at you.
One of the very best things you can do is to practice. Practice with family members and friends until you have quick responses that will be able to shut people down quickly and politely. Have your family randomly surprise you by trying to pet your dog very insistently.
Some phrases to practice responding to are:
“Hey! We don’t allow dogs!”
“The health department says no animals allowed here unless you’re blind. You’re not blind.”
“This is my store and I get to make the rules. I don’t care what the “ADA” says, no dogs allowed in here!”
“Can I see your papers?”
“Service dogs have to have papers! Everyone else does!”
As they reach out to pet your dog “Can I pet your dog?”
“Just really quick.”
A person tries to make eye contact with you and moves in as if to start talking with you or to “drive-by” pet your dog.
“Poor dog, he looks tired. That’s so mean, you don’t even let people pet him.”
“My old college roommate’s husband’s brother has a service dog!”
A child tries to push past you to pet your dog and the mom just smiles and doesn’t do anything.
“I want to take my dog into stores with me too! Where’d you get that vest?”
Don’t Feel Bad
Remember, if people choose to be mad, that’s on them to deal with. You can’t make someone feel happy or mad, that’s their choice.
You have the right to have an uninterrupted store trip just like everyone else. Move on if you can, if not, ask for a store manager. Managers are happy to kick out rude people and accommodate you, in most cases.
You also do not need to educate anyone about service dogs (except in some cases the store owner, if you feel like it).
It’s very unlikely someone will follow after you, so don’t be afraid to continue on your way. The person will get over it. You and your dog’s time and safety is more important than how people feel about not being able to pet your dog.
What are the situations you’re afraid of encountering when you start taking your service dog in training out in public?