Staying Calm: What to do When a Guide Dog Handler is Challenged

Information is always a good thing. This is especially true when working with highly visible things that the public may not be well educated about, for example guide dogs. As a guide dog user, I was taught that my guide dog could accompany me almost anywhere, and I cannot be charged a fee or otherwise discriminated against.

Since I received Simba in June 2013, there has only been two incidences where my right to bring Simba with me was challenged. The first was when I was taking a cab somewhere, and was barred from entering the vehicle by the driver. After informing him that I had the right to bring Simba in the cab, I politely requested that he contact his dispatch to see what they had to say. Thankfully, they told him that he had no choice, quickly and quietly concluding the incident.

The second time was when I was in a restaurant, and the manager wanted to see proof that Simba was a trained service animal. This is a bit thornier since there is no universally accepted proof of ID, because there is no central registry of service animals. As part of my training at Guide Dogs for the Blind, I was informed that the public does not have the right to request proof that Simba is a trained service animal. In this case, I informed the manager that he was in fact a trained service animal, and I was not legally required to show proof, which was a good thing since I didn't have the ID card provided by GDB with me. The manager started to make a scene and tried telling me that I didn't have the right to bring Simba in without ID, which is patently false. At this point, not only were the people in my party watching the confrontation, but we had started to attract the attention of other diners. At the time, Simba was laying on my left, calmly looking up at me to see why the conversation was so intense. I tried telling the manager that I would guarantee Simba's behavior, and that I would remove him if he became unruly. It was only after I expressed interest in calling the police to get involved that she eventually backed down.

These two experiences have shaped my standard response for the times when I am challenged on bringing Simba with me. Here is what I think that a guide dog handler should do in a situation similar to what I have described. The first rule is to remain calm; you usually have the law on your side. Next, explain that the guide dog has every right to be there, since he or she is providing a necessary service. Try to be as unconfrontational as possible, and never be the one who turns the conversation into a shouting match. Even though public perception rarely has a direct impact on the outcome of the challenge, you have the responsibility as a guide dog handler to appear to be as nonaggressive as possible, so you do not look like a bully demanding to get your way. This will also be important if the situation escalates, since people are more likely to speak out in your favor when interviewed by the police or media if you stay calm, pleasant, and polite.

If respectful explanation of your rights does not work, you are left with only a couple of options depending on your personality type. If you want to take the more directly aggressive route, you can threaten to call the police. This often works, since it shows that you are confident in your position. It is important that if the situation is not resolved by the threat, you do not back down and you then actually call the authorities. This will prolong the confrontation, and make it very public, but it will most likely get resolved in your favor. It is important to remain respectful when the police show up, since the officers may not know the right thing to do since this is not a common problem. Explain your rights, and clearly explain the situation. If you want to take the less aggressive route, you can quietly leave, and then contact the owner of the establishment or the corporate office. You may have to explain what happened and your rights as a handler, but they should work within their system to get their employees the necessary training so something like this does not happen again. If that does not work, or if you were talking to the owner, you can use popular and traditional media to spread your story. Remember that you are not on a quest to get revenge. The goal is to use public knowledge of the incident to cause reform.

Note that I said above that "you usually have the law on your side." There are specific times that an establishment can ask you to remove your dog or bar him or her from entering. This topic is a bit complex, and really deserves its own blog post. As a summary, it most often comes down to the idea that your dog may be a safety concern by their presents, regardless of how well behaved he or she may be. Have no fear though, these exceptions are officially recognized and are not set by the owner of the business. It's not as if the owner of the restaurant down the street can one day decide that they don't want service animals and apply to become one of these exceptions.

Sean