Tuesday, February 27, 2024

To pet or not to pet? - Why some dogs and owners might say 'please do not disturb'

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When you see a dog in public, do you rush over to tell him he is a very good boy? Maybe it’s your dog-crazy child who has spied a patch of fur and a wet nose and wants to dive in for a hug. There might be squeals and pleas of “can I pet him?” Dogs have that effect on a lot of us.

But many dog owners would like you to resist that urge. Chances are it’s ok to pet, but what if the dog is reactive and will misbehave? The handler on the other end of the leash might be working on those bad habits, and you’re not helping.

More importantly, what if it’s a service dog? While it might look like the dog is just relaxing at her owner’s feet, attention from a stranger could be a distraction. Their work might involve detecting an impending seizure, a diabetic event or anxiety attack. Because of this, many handlers outfit their service dog with a “Do Not Pet” vest.

But if you run across Hood County resident Jackson Fulgham and his service dogs, you might get the green light. Fulgham, who has handled numerous service dogs, sees teaching the public about service dogs as a mission. He said, “Every owner has their own philosophy about (public contact)…. I enjoy interacting with people and acclimating them to service dogs.”

Lacey and Striker are his current working service dogs. Both German shepherd dogs, Lacey is older and more seasoned, but Striker is catching on quickly to the work. Fulgham says that Lacey is a great ambassador for service dogs, being the more outgoing one, while Striker’s personality is a bit more reticent, perhaps due to his inexperience.

When Fulgham is out in public with the dogs, for the most part, he said that people engage with him and respond favorably. “(People) tell me one of three things (about German shepherds): they either had one before, lost one or want to get one.”

Fulgham has often invited little kids to pet his dogs, showing them how best to approach a strange dog – an important lesson for both dog and child to learn.

“Always ask the handler first … (but) I also teach my dogs to offer a paw. You want a social dog, but also you want the handler to be in control.”

Fulgham has raised and trained puppies to be service dogs for veterans. His volunteer group of handlers and trainers have the goal to give trained German shepherd service dogs to qualified veterans. (Visit www.warrior-patriot-resources.com for more information.) Plans are underway to establish a training center here in Hood County for this work.

Solving the dilemma of when to pet and when not to pet might come down to knowing the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals.

SERVICE DOGS

Service dogs are “on the job” – they are working animals, not pets, though handlers do form strong bonds with them. By definition, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act website (ada.gov), a service dog is individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks for someone with a specific disability. The handler is the client in a service dog team.

Service dogs may come to their owners already trained and ready to work, and some are trained by the handler. The training often takes years.

Perhaps most widely recognized, a guide dog or “seeing eye” dog is trained to assist blind and visually impaired people by avoiding obstacles, safely crossing streets and navigating doors and interior spaces.

Some service dogs are trained to help those with hearing disabilities by alerting them to a variety of household and common sounds. Service dogs can provide assistance for other needs, such as balance, retrieving or pulling a wheelchair.

Remarkable videos have been recently published online showing how one dog cushioned his handler’s head with his body during a grand mal seizure.

The qualifications to be a service dog are strict. When puppies and young dogs are being trained, a “career change” may occur if a dog does not have the confirmation, temperament, body size or skill to perform required tasks. A timid, reactive or aggressive dog will be career-changed. A dog with little energy, or too much, will also given a new path.

The ADA outlines the rights and responsibilities of a service dog and handler. For example, the dog must always be in the control of the handler, either leashed, harnessed or tethered in some way.

The law does not say assistance animals are allowed everywhere but does say that the dog can “accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.”

Staff of an establishment is limited in what they can ask a service dog handler: whether the dog is required due to a disability and what tasks the dog has been trained to perform.

A service dog and handler cannot be asked to leave the premises unless the dog is out of control of the handler (aggression or hyperactivity) or is not housebroken.

THERAPY DOGS

“Pet me, I love you!” If therapy dogs could talk, that’s what they would say. Very different from service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to interact while they are on duty, including being petted by many people. The handler and the dog work as a team under a variety of conditions for a client who is not the handler.

Therapy dogs also receive training, usually just simple obedience and special commands such as “up” (on a bed), “visit” or “gentle.” Some therapy dogs show up in costumes or have tricks they perform for an admiring crowd, all intended to give and receive affection.

There are a couple of national and international groups that certify and provide guidelines for therapy dogs. The minimum age, according to Therapy Dogs International (tdi-dog.org), is one year, but most therapy dogs are more mature and settled.

Certification is a rigorous process, and teams often have printed credentials. TDI, for example, requires an initial temperament test, annual health reports, on-site observations by TDI-certified evaluators and a minimum number of visits per year for the dog to stay qualified.

Typically, therapy dogs visit hospitals, schools, hospices, nursing homes, charity events and more. Therapy dogs are often seen in airports, welcoming military personnel home. When disasters or catastrophic events happen, counselors and therapy teams will be deployed to lighten the load for both first responders and the victims.

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS

Their motto might be “I’m here for you.” Emotional support animals provide comfort to their handler through innate characteristics as part of a plan to treat various psychiatric disorders. By definition, ESAs are not service dogs as they need not have any disability-specific training.

A licensed mental health professional can prescribe an animal for a person with a disabling mental illness. Most commonly, ESAs provide support to their handlers for clinically diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADD and PTSD, among others.

There is no requirement for certification nor is there a governing entity that oversees ESAs. There are companies that will sell certificates, ID cards, tags and other merchandise for the animal.

Because ESAs are not covered under the ADA, they do not enjoy the same access privileges as do service dogs. However, the Fair Housing Act does set policies for ESAs, under which a tenant may keep a support animal even in housing that does not accept pets.

ESAs were previously allowed to fly commercially with their owners, under the Air Carrier Access Act, but many airlines have banned ESAs and now only focus on service dogs.

ALWAYS ASK

Whether it’s a service dog, an ESA or just a pet out for a walk, the bottom line is that it’s always best to check with the handler before swooping in for “scritches.” And who knows, if you’re lucky, you might make another new best friend.