Whatcom County handlers offer tips on how to treat service dogs

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 10, 2014 

As Melinda Tageant and Robb Correll walk through Bellis Fair mall with their service dogs Wednesday, April 9, the dogs attract looks and smiles from passing children.

For the most part, though, they are ignored, and that's how Correll and Tageant prefer it.

When they're out with their service dogs, Thor and May, the dogs are working. They're looking for cues from their owners that something is wrong, so the dogs can alert their owners. If they're distracted, that job is harder to do. All too often, Tageant and Correll have to stop people who pet or talk to their dogs without permission.

"I try to be understanding and nice, but distraction is the term they don't understand," said Correll, 55, of Bellingham. "So I try to explain to them so they do understand."

Tageant has a condition that causes her to faint, and her dog can alert her before she faints, so she can make sure to sit down. If she misses that alert because someone is petting or talking to her dog, she could get hurt.

"With a lot of handlers, it can be a life-or-death situation if someone is distracting their dog," said Tageant, 20, of Ferndale, who has trained service dogs for herself and others the past three years.

For people with post-traumatic stress disorder, it can create an unhealthy stress level when they have to deal with people approaching their dogs, especially if it draws attention to them when they have to explain why someone shouldn't talk to or pet their dog.

Sometimes a handler just might not feel like talking or might no have time, Correll said. He's had people become offended when he asks them not to pet his dog, or when he refuses to give his dog's name. People will say, "Oh, but I just love dogs," and he will usually try to joke around with them to get them to understand why their behavior is inappropriate.

"Using humor can really defuse it," Tageant said.

Though children can be a challenge because of their enthusiasm for animals, Tageant said they can be easier to talk to than adults. When kids approach her, she uses it as an educational opportunity to tell them about her service dog and to explain why they can't pet him. They usually respond better than adults do.

"They listen better and they're more respectful when you tell them," Tageant said. "Honestly, I prefer kids. Kids are often quite a bit more polite and understanding."

Service dogs usually receive one to two years of training, which can be done by the owner or a professional. The training goes beyond basic obedience to include specific tasks to help a person who has a disability, and training on how to behave in public. Any breed can be a service dog, whether a Chihuahua or a Great Dane.

"Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes," Tageant said. "It's the training that matters, training and temperament."

Here are the three most common issues Correll and Tageant encounter when they're out with their service dogs:

- People distracting their dogs. Instead of immediately approaching the dog and petting it or talking to it, talk to the handler first. "The best thing is, if you see a service dog, completely ignore the dog and talk to the handler," Tageant said. "If they want to talk and let you say 'hi,' they can, but that's their personal choice."

- Poorly trained dogs or pets. Tageant's dog was bitten by another dog that was wearing a service dog vest, and Correll has had dogs come running up to his dog. Though it's sometimes playful, it's also distracting when the dog is working. Don't bring pets into places where they are not allowed. If you have a service dog, make sure it is properly trained in task work and public access work.

- Asking personal information. Correll and Tageant have had people ask them what's wrong with them that they need a service dog, because their disabilities are not visible. "You wouldn't do that to someone in a wheelchair," Tageant said. "It's rude to ask." Business employees are allowed to ask what the animal is trained to do for the handler, but they can't ask what the handler's disability is or ask to see the dog perform the task.

MORE INFO

To learn more about service dogs, go to pleasedontpetme.com or petpartners.org, and click on the "Service Animals" tab.

Reach ZOE FRALEY at zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com or call 756-2803.

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