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Assistance dog etiquette

Awww! Look! What a lovely dog! "Hello there gorgeous!" Oops! She's an assistance dog and I mustn't distract her. "Okay, I won't distract you, you gorgeous little thing! Oh! You're so cute!"

In the same way as wheelchair users are all different, all assistance dogs are different and all owners are different too... so this is my list of how you can treat me and Liggy with respect, whilst still admiring what she does.

1. Please don't distract me! 

Okay, but what would distract Liggy? Like people, dogs have personalities and what distracts Liggy might not distract another dog... and vice versa. There are some likely common distractions though. Believe it or not, the biggest distraction is making eye contact. Staring into her beautiful puppy dog eyes is Liggy-language for "I want to be your new best friend and play with you forever!" Even if I'm not looking at Liggy, I know when someone is making eye contact with her. Usually, she's a good girl and tries to stay on task but her whole body language changes when she's got you in that connection. If you now add in talking to her in a cute, high-pitched voice, you might as well go right ahead and make puppies with her!

2. Please ask before interacting with her

When I'm at work, I have times when I'm happy to stop and have a quick chat and other times when I need to keep my head down and get something finished. Liggy is a working dog and I'm her boss. Sometimes, I don't mind her taking a break to say hello but other times, we need to get on. If you want to interact with her, just ask me. If we've got time and if she's been working hard and well behaved, I'll probably say it's fine. I'll need to loosen her lead though or she could hurt herself or  hurt me, so just give me a moment.

3. Judge the situation

You know when those people are in the street doing surveys and you're in a rush to get somewhere? Why can't they read the signs that you haven't got time to stop? Sometimes I feel a bit like that. I know that strangers might assume that a wheelchair and a dog means I don't work but I do work and my lunch break is pretty short. I have a maximum of 30 minutes to pop out, buy food, exercise and toilet Liggy, wash my hands, eat and get back to work. If it's a long day, I have break that into two 15 minute breaks. I think my body language tells the story. I'm racing along, as fast as my wheels will carry me. My head is down. I'm not looking for social interactions. So, in the nicest possible way, leave me alone! If I'm sauntering along, browsing in shop windows and looking around at people, I'm more likely to want to stop and chat.

4. Restaurants and other foodie places

Liggy is really good at letting me eat in peace. She's a lab and totally gets the importance of food. She wouldn't be impressed if I interrupted her meal and she returns that by never interrupting mine. In restaurants and cafes, I usually take her brown rug and she lies next to me and snoozes while I eat. Once I've finished, she pops up and lets me know she's still there and would like a bit of attention.

If you spot us (or some other assistance dog and partner) out having a meal, and you want to pet the dog, have a chat, etc. 'be like Liggy'! Wait until we've finished eating and then come over. Usually I'm happy to chat and let Liggy say hello once my meal is over. Think about this from Liggy's perspective too. She has been a really good girl, lying quietly while we eat. You coming to say hi is the perfect reward for that good behaviour... and that will make her more likely to keep doing it.

5. Transferable situations

Liggy is still young and learning what she is and isn't allowed to do. Being a sociable pup, she sometimes jumps up in excitement. Every time she does this, I tell her off. Many people tell me it's okay and they don't mind. That's nice but dogs can't read situations like people can. What might happen if she jumps up at someone with mobility difficulties? (Quite likely, given my disability and circle of friends) What would happen if she comes back into the office after a walk in the rain and jumps up at my boss with muddy paws? Assistance dogs are allowed access to places that other dogs aren't. This comes with a huge responsibility to behave as well as possible. So, if I tell Liggy off, please don't contradict me. I'm not being mean. I'm being consistent. I want her to continue being praised for good behaviour in shops, restaurants, the office, management meetings, etc. Understanding the rules makes her happier, even if I have to tell her off sometimes.

6. She's a dog, not a robot

I've lost count of the number of times I heard this at Canine Partners' training centre! But it's true! Liggy is a well trained dog. All Canine Partners are. They are still dogs though and can have an off day or even an off moment. Like us, they have likes and dislikes. Things occasionally scare them. Please don't expect her to be perfect. That's a lot of pressure for her and me. Technology is very good. If I wanted a robot, I'm sure it could be acquired. But I actually love Liggy's personality! She's a real tough nut! She is small for her breed but is very strong, physically and is very strong willed. She has a very serious streak... but then she loves to play too. She has bundles of energy and sometimes has a mad half hour but then she'll sleep for Britain. If she occasionally misbehaves (which is rare) please don't judge her... or me... or Canine Partners. She's just a dog, not a robot.

7. Please don't feed my dog!

When you think about it, it's just good manners. However I have really good reasons why nobody else feeds Liggy, except me. Firstly, and most importantly, Liggy has food allergies. The idea that dogs can have allergies hadn't occurred to me either but they can. Liggy is allergic to meat, so most normal dog treats and certainly many human foods are off limits for her. I know you would never want to make my best friend sick, so please don't be tempted to slip her a little treat without me seeing.

Secondly, the bond between an assistance dog and their human is critical. It could even save my life one day. Liggy is a lab. Food is everything. If you feed her, she might start to love you as much as she loves me. Even Neil doesn't feed her. I am the sole source of food. She can like you but she can only love me. Sorry!

Thirdly, this is a partnership. Liggy does so much to look after me but I also have to look after her. I need to keep her in tiptop health. Labs have a tendency to put on weight and that can lead to all kinds of health problems. Liggy has her food weighed to the gram, her treats are taken off her food total. It's all carefully worked out. She gets weighed monthly and if she puts weight on, I'd have to reduce her food. She really wouldn't like that! So just let me decide what I put in her mouth. You can be nice to her in other ways.

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