My husband and I chatted, enjoyed our dinner at a favorite restaurant, then got up to leave. As we walked toward the door, I smiled as people at nearby tables commented with surprise that I had a dog with me.
That is as it should be.
Dining in restaurants is a part of normal life with a service dog for many of us. To makes these visits as easy as possible for all concerned, practice the skills listed below at home, in parks, in malls, at friends’ houses, then outdoor cafes. Your dog will have arrived to you with these skills, but constant review and practice helps keep them are as good as they can be:
- Long, quiet downs in a distracting environment
- Ignoring people, including friendly ones
- “Under” (as in scoot under the table and lie down)
- Movement matching (so your dog walks next to you without verbal commands)
- Ignoring food on the table or floor
- Remaining by your side when you stand still (while waiting, washing hands, etc)
Each of these skills are solid? Great! Here are some hints for actual meals out:
Before You Leave Home
Be sure that your dog both looks and smells clean and that his equipment is clean and neat. Brush him to remove loose hair and prevent excessive shedding. If you’re going out in the evening, consider feeding your dog a snack or small meal beforehand, even if his normal dinner time is later, so that he will be more relaxed and comfortable if you end up being out later than you expect. Potty him before you leave home and, if necessary, before entering the restaurant. Do that away from the restaurant door or windows, please.
In the Restaurant
You’ve practiced with your dog at home and in a variety of public places so you know you’re ready. When you enter the restaurant your dog should walk quietly by your side—not pulling ahead, not sniffing the floor or other people. He is with you but is not the center of your attention. When people comment about Rowan, usually about how beautiful he is or how well behaved, I smile, thank them, and move on toward my table. Some people dining nearby may not be comfortable with dogs, so I do what I can to calmly minimize attention on him.
If possible, request a booth or a table by the wall. With a booth there’s generally more room under the table for your dog. If you have a table next to the wall or in a corner, you can have your dog lie down out of the server’s way. Be sure your dog’s tail is tucked out of the way so he doesn’t get stepped on.
When you get up to leave, prevent your dog from shaking—often a hand on his shoulder for a moment or two or until you’ve exited will do the trick.
Buffets can present a greater challenge for the Service Dog and handler. In many cases, skipping them, having a friend get your food, or leaving your dog at your table are all ways of coping with this situation. If you bring your dog to a buffet table, he must be able to ignore the distraction of having food next to him and in your hand. You need to be able to manage your dog while placing food on your plate and carrying your plate. Practice each of these skills separately at home before attempting buffet-style eating out.
When practicing at home, teach your dog to remain on the side of you farthest from the buffet in order to keep him (and his fur) farther from the food and to allow easier serving for you. Your dog needs to stop walking when you stop and to stand still close to you without sniffing the food on the buffet or on anyone’s plate. I like to review these skills at home with food on a low coffee table. If the dog can focus on me and resist the temptation of food at that level, he should easily be able to handle it at buffet height.
Situations You Might Encounter
Restaurant staff not knowing access laws
It’s a good idea to carry an ADA Information card that explains Service Dog access law. Know your rights, and be prepared to inform restaurant staff about them in a courteous, helpful manner. Most of the time resistance is based on lack of understanding of the law rather than any desire to restrict you unnecessarily. When I’ve explained the access requirements to restaurant personnel, I have had universally positive responses.
Be prepared to help your dog maintain his focus on you in the event you encounter another Service Dog in a restaurant or a pet in an outdoor seating area. I have had to block an aggressive pet dog away from Rowan while passing through outdoor seating to get to the restaurant door.
Young children are always attracted by the sight of a dog and are sometimes not under their parents’ control, so be ready to calmly but clearly keep a child from feeding, petting, or otherwise distracting your dog. When appropriate, I use these occasions as an opportunity to educate the children and/or parents about appropriate behavior around Service Dogs.
Now it’s time to hit the road and enjoy a meal out with your Service Dog.
by Melissa Fischer of Puppy Homeschool