Distracting a working service dog means distracting from its biggest task – helping its owner

Not too long ago, Jacqueline Rennebohm had to part with her beloved dog, Dexter, because you couldn’t resist petting him.

Here’s the thing: Rennebohm, an Environmental Health Studies student, is visually impaired. Dexter was her guide dog. You weren’t supposed to pet him. You were supposed to give him space.

“People don’t quite understand the significance (of working dogs). They think it’s just a pet, and they brush it off. But the significance of having your dog distracted is quite great. Dexter had to be retired due to off-leash dog incidents and also people on campus, especially, petting the dog,” Rennebohm said.


“People want to pet it and give it attention, but the issue with that is, that in-harness, service dogs, including guide dogs, are trained when the harness is on, they’re working. When it comes off, they’re like any other dog – they get to play, go to the park, have social interaction. But maintaining that contrast is important to maintaining their skills and their consistency,” she continued.

“When they become inconsistent, they can retire because it becomes not safe for us.”

And that’s ultimately the biggest problem. Distracting a working service dog means distracting the animal from its biggest task – helping its owner.

Western is addressing the situation on campus. The Office of the Provost has referred the issue of service dogs on campus to a Joint Committee as a step toward mitigating this problem and increasing awareness and education among members of the campus community.

With Dexter, Rennebohm said it was a challenge on and off campus. Whether on the street, or on the bus, people would see the dog, pet him, offer food, clap, squeal, coo, or otherwise, distract him. While there’s nothing wrong or ill-intentioned about wanting to pet a dog, it’s not okay to approach service dogs in this way.

And it’s not just people that distracted Dexter. Other dogs did, too, she added. A run-in with an off-leash dog in the Social Sciences Centre left him shaking and distracted for some time afterward.

“Just one petting, one distraction, messes him up for the rest of the day; he’s always looking and he’s not paying attention. If there was a dog distraction, that can mess him up for a few days,” Rennebohm continued, noting even non-violent interactions with leashed dogs can throw off a service dog.

Recently, she had another negative dog interaction, this time with her new dog on campus, she added.

“With leashed dogs, you’re walking down the sidewalk, and you see us and think, ‘Oh, it’s a service dog. He must be really nice. I want my dog to meet this dog.’ The dog walking by, or getting in my dog’s face can distract. It’s hard for anyone not to react, especially a dog,” Rennebohm explained.

“What happens if my dog wants to cross the street to get the attention and we get hit by an oncoming car? Things like that you don’t think of, but that can happen. The best thing to do is to give us space.”

Retiring a guide dog like Dexter early was a preventable and unfortunate circumstance, she continued.

“These dogs are too valuable for us to lose. It was very emotional to lose my past dog. I had him for two years and I loved him. He was the best. It was really hard and I still struggle,” Rennebohm said.

“The dogs are valuable because we rely on them for a purpose – seeing, mobility, epilepsy. We have dogs for so many things and if you interact, you distract and you are harming our relationship, and might force us to retire our dog. Just one pet can ruin the consistency of the animal and these dogs are very expensive, with thousands of dollars, lots of time, money and energy invested.”

If a service animal is distracted while in harness, it’s possible its owner isn’t aware of the distraction, Rennebohm explained.

“Being blind, I don’t see things coming. If the dog is veering me, I’m assuming there’s a reason. It’s having the trust that your dog is doing something for a reason. A distractible dog can lead to a lack of trust,” she added.

“It affects the relationship between us as a team and us functioning and that can be a health and safety risk. Or it can affect our trust and ultimately, it can end in the retirement of the dog.”

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To help you, guide dogs and their owners, here is some guide dog etiquette from Environmental Health Studies student Jacqueline Rennebohm, who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog around campus:

  • If you see a service dog, don’t talk to it. You can smile. Don’t pet the dog. Don’t squeal, or react to the dog in any way. Stay calm. Don’t clap. Give space.
  • If you are on the bus, offer accessibility seats at the front to persons with dogs.
  • Keep your dog on a leash. If you have a dog in your office on campus, and you’re not keeping it gated or leashed, close your door. Don’t let your leashed dog approach a service dog.
  • If you’re on the same side of the sidewalk as a service dog ahead of you, cross the street if you have the opportunity.