Ability Dogs Canada to launch education campaign on service dogs

Published April 12, 2022 5:06 p.m. ET

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Service dogs are a great resource to help people suffering with mental health, anxiety, or mobility issues, but there are concerns coming from people who use them, saying the public should be educated on how to react when they encounter one.

Shawn Floyd has had his service dog, Honey, since she was a puppy. Now fully trained through Ability Dogs Canada, she helps him cope with PTSD suffered after a career in law enforcement.

"She's been fully certified for over a year. She's really helped me going to some large group settings and I can direct my attention when things get tense and anxious," Floyd said.

"At home, she's company. When I start to get anxious, she'll lay down next to me or I just feel her next to me as a sort of source of reassurance."

But Floyd says he's experienced unnerving situations while out in public places with his service dog.

"Unfortunately, my dog has become a bit of a beacon when I go out into the public," he said. "I've had people come into my space, very close, and started to ask history as to why I have the dog or what the dog is for. I don't even know this person!"

Floyd says he's even had people attempt to pet or feed Honey, causing more stress and anxiety in the situation.

"It has become, unfortunately for me, very frustrating at times where I felt I didn't want to bring my dog into the store or into a location because I didn't want that attention," he added.

Samantha Cooper is the founder of Ability Dogs Canada, an organization that trains service dogs, and says she's received calls from handlers in the same situation.

"Somebody has come up and they say, 'Oh, I know I'm not supposed to pet the dog,' and then they start to reach," Cooper said. "What's happening is, specifically my PTSD people, they freeze and they are stuck in the store. Two individuals, I've had to go and help to get them out of the store because they are stuck."

That's why she is launching an education campaign, reminding people how to react when they see a service dog at work.

"My goal is to help educate when you see a team, what is appropriate and what is not," she added.

Cooper says a handler may use a service dog for many reasons, and the dogs are trained specifically for that person.

"They don't want the attention, and sometimes they experience disassociation or flashbacks while they are out and we teach the dogs to nudge them to help them get through that," she said.

"When the dog is distracted, sometimes the dog doesn't catch that the person is going into one of those episodes, so it creates a problem," Cooper added. "As much as they love animals, and their intentions are completely positive, they are affecting the person that is in need of the dog."

Cooper says it's important to remind people that when dogs are wearing their vests, they are working, and not to disturb them so their handlers can feel more comfortable.

"You're not going to go up to somebody in a wheelchair and start talking about their wheelchair," Cooper said. "The person comes first. Just interact with them, smile at them, say hey, have a nice day, whatever you would do to anybody."

Floyd agrees, and hopes the message will stick and spread across the country.

"I don't mind somebody saying, 'You have a nice dog,' but at the same token, I would prefer that they can enjoy looking at the dog, let to keep walking without trying to talk to me," he said.

"It's not that I bring my service dog into a situation for the fun of it, she's there for a purpose for me," Floyd said. "If people can be aware of that, to leave the animal alone and let the person with the service animal just go about their business, it would make things so much better, for not only myself, but I'm sure for others with a service animal."

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