New Brunswick

People still not getting message about service dogs, owner says

A Moncton woman who has seizures has a message for people who meet her out and about: don't touch my service dog.

Joline Bernard says her dog's role is to warn her of seizures, not to be petted by people who think he's cute

Joline Bernard's service dog Toby is often distracted while riding the bus by people trying to pet him. (Joline Bernard)

A Moncton woman has one message for people who meet her out and about: don't touch my service dog.

Joline Bernard owns a service dog named Toby, who helps her live with a serious seizure disorder.

When Bernard goes out with Toby she said she has to deal with people petting, or otherwise, distracting the dog.

"It's so bizarre," said Bernard. "It's like people have never seen a dog before."

Toby wears a vest that says he's a service dog, but according to Bernard, some people aren't getting the message.

"If I'm on the bus, people that walk on the bus, like, will just reach down and pet him, and I just have to slap their hands away and they look at me like I'm crazy," said Bernard.

"I'm just like, 'Can you please not touch my service dog?' And they're like, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see the vest.' Even though the vest takes up most of his body."

Bernard has even had to deal with parents telling their kids to pet her dog.

"Every time I go to the mall little toddlers ... their parents are like, 'Go pet the doggie,'" she said. 

"I'm like, 'No, don't pet the doggie. Walk away.' And these people get mad at me."

Distraction equals danger

Bernard says distracting a service dog can be dangerous to the health of the owner. Bernard has a seizure disorder, and Toby warns her when a seizure is coming. (Joline Bernard)

Bernard said it's dangerous for anyone to distract a service dog.

"If they distract him, it's putting me in danger. It's the same thing as if you distract a Seeing Eye dog."

Toby helps Bernard in a number of ways, including predicting when she's going to have seizure.

"He's trained to sense it right before it happens, maybe 15 to 10 minutes before it happens," said Bernard.

Toby tugs on Bernard's pant legs and wines to alert her to an impending seizure. Bernard then has time to sit down and do anything else she needs to do before the seizure.

Toby is also trained to bring Bernard's medicine to her and to stay with her throughout the seizure.

Vest not enough

Bernard says even though Toby wears a vest indicating he's a service dog people still try to pet him. Some parents have even encouraged their kids to do so. (Joline Bernard)

While vests are important in signalling a dog is a service dog, Heather Logan, the head trainer with the non-profit Maritime Specialty Service Dogs Society, said that's often not enough.

"All people see is the cute puppy," said Logan. "They don't really see us. People who like animals are drawn right to the animal's face."

Logan said some owners may be tempted to make brighter and flashier vests for their service dogs to make them more visible.

Logan warned against this, because people don't tend to notice the vest anyway.

Children understand

She said the vest should only include the words "service dog" and the name of the school where it was trained.

Logan said education is still needed, but the knowledge is becoming a generational issue.

"The interesting thing that I'm finding now is that many children will tell their parents 'Don't touch that dog, Mommy, that's a working dog,'" said Logan.

"The kids are getting the message."

A teaching opportunity

Logan, who uses a service dog herself, said she used to be annoyed by people trying to pet her dog, which she said was a daily occurrence.

Now, she has a different approach.

"I take those opportunities as teaching opportunities," Logan said.

"It only takes 10 seconds to smile and say, 'Please don't touch the service dog, but thank you for thinking he's cute.'"

With files from Shaun Waters & Information Morning Fredericton