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Friday, March 26, 2010

A Restaurant’s Guide to Impressing Diners with Service Dogs

Have you ever felt help like you couldn't control your body?  Perhaps you couldn't walk.  Maybe you couldn't see.  Maybe you couldn't hear what people were saying.  According to the United States Census Bureau, about 5.4% of Americans are living with a disability.  One valuable furry creature that has been making the lives of people with a disability better is the service dog.  For this post, I'll be using the term service dog to include any dog (or monkey or pony) that assists a person with disability.  This includes, but is not limited to guide dogs, hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, and mobility dogs. 

A service dog can be trained to:
bulletRetrieve dropped objects or a phone
bulletBalance a person when walking
bulletOpen Doors
bulletTurn on/off lights
bulletRetrieve a telephone
bulletGuide a person during walks
bulletAlert a person to every day sounds like a baby crying or a knock at the door
bulletAlert a person when they sense an oncoming seizure 

Dogs are intelligent and highly useful creatures.  When I was on crutches, my Mouse would pull me around the house in a rolling chair and fetch items for me.  Mouse had already been taught to pull in draft training and to fetch items in water rescue and obedience training.  Additionally, service dogs can be trained to complete very complex tasks.  My late trainer's dog completed a very difficult task one day at Pace Bend Park.  My trainer, Dick, took both his dog out on a boat.  Dick threw his cane overboard while in the middle of the lake.  Buddy, his service dog, jumped out of the boat, fetched the cane, and brought it back to the boat.  Buddy then pulled the boat to shore.  Needless to say, Dick was a great trainer, and Buddy was a wonderful dog. 

Dick, Chase, and Buddy on the boat back in 2004.

The value of a service dog is that they give people freedom to live their lives more independently, and that value is priceless.  As Austin is a very dog friendly city, it may be difficult to determine whether or not a dog is only a companion dog or a service dog.  Here's a friendly guide for restaurants on some challenges and etiquette when serving a guest with a service dog.  Please see Keep Austin Dog Friendly for etiquette that companion dog owners should follow when dining out with their dogs.  A big thank you for Sheri Soltes from Texas Hearing and Service Dogs for providing much of this information.

bulletBy law, a service dog is allowed to accompany his/her handler anywhere he or she may go.  That means that the dog is allowed in restaurants (not just the patio), retail stores, banks, and hotels.  Even if the hotel does not allow pets, a service dog is allowed by law.  The hotel must accommodate and allow the service dog, regardless of the dog's size.  Hotels may not charge a pet fee for the service, however, the handler is responsible for any damage that the dog might cause. 
bulletService dogs aren't always easy to identify. Disabilities are not always visible or obvious.  While many of service dogs may wear vests with logos, some will not.  Service dogs come in many breeds and sizes depending on their function.  If a person identifies their dog as a service dog, I wouldn't interrogate the handler anymore.  Comments and questions such as, "Well, you don't look disabled." or "What kind of disability do you have?" are highly offensive.  Avoid those types of remarks. 
bulletPlease do not pet a service dog without first asking permission from the handler.  The handler might instruct you on how or when to pet the dog.  Please do not be surprised if the handler requests that you not disturb the dog.  Remember, these dogs are working all the time.  They do need a break once in a while.  Additionally, the handler may be using the quiet time under the table as a training tool.
bulletPlease do interact with the dog's handler.  A common mistake that one might make it to completely ignore the dog's handler and to speak only to other people at the table.  Also, please don't direct your questions to the dog.  The dog's handler is your customer.  It is a restaurant's job to provide service to the customer, not to make a big deal about a dog. 
bulletMany handlers will ask their dogs to remain in a down position during their visit.  Please don't bark at the dog, call the dog, or throw food at the dog.  Don't ask me why people bark at dogs. I don't understand it. 
bulletMost of the time, the handler will let you know where it is most convenient to be seated.  The handler may have a difficult time navigating through a sea of tables, un-level ground, or stairs.  Occasionally, diners with a service dog might be seated in an isolated corner by the staff.  This may make the diner feel as if he or she is a nuisance or bothersome.  Dining out is not something we do to just to fill our stomachs.  Dining out is a social experience that should involve good food, good drink, and good company.  To make someone feel as if his or her party is isolated from the rest of the world does not make for a positive dining experience.  All diners should be seated in such a fashion that they feel that their patronage of your restaurant is appreciated. 
bulletIf other diners do not wish to be seated near a service dog, the proper course of action would be to offer the other diners another seating arrangement.  It is considered improper to move the party with the service dog. 
bulletA service dog's handler should carry water for the dog along with supplies to clean up/pick up.  While a restaurant not required to provide water for the dog, it doesn't hurt to ask if the dog can be offered water.   

Any other questions about dining out with service dogs can be sent to or you can browse the Texas Hearing and Service Dog website for more information. 

Adri and Cookie, photo courtesy of THSD

Dining out with a service dog, photo courtesy of THSD

Stephanie Racier and Excalibur, photo courtesy of THSD

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