BLOOMINGTON — With the start of the holiday shopping season today, many of us will be out and about more frequently at stores and restaurants as we prepare for and enjoy the holidays.

That includes people with disabilities who have service dogs to help them get around.

Tarkowski, who has been blind since age 20, has had eight guide dogs over 45 years. She uses the term guide dogs for blind people who use trained dogs, and service dogs for people with other disabilities who use trained dogs.

"The first time I was able to hold onto a harness (of a guide dog) and walk without tripping — it was an amazing feeling," Tarkowski recalled. "The freedom of walking with a dog and the speed at which I could move confidently — it was a major confidence builder. I didn't have to have someone with me at all times."

More people with various disabilities are realizing that service dogs can help them with certain tasks. "And a dog helps people by offering unconditional love," Tarkowski said.

In addition to helping people with sight impairments, trained service dogs may help people who:

  • Are deaf or hard of hearing by signaling them to certain sounds.
  • Are children with autism by herding them when they are trying to run away.
  • Have a seizure disorder by laying down on the person so they don't hurt themselves when they are convulsing.
  • Have low blood sugar by bringing the person glucose tablets or fast-eating sugar before the person become unconscious.
  • Have post-traumatic stress disorder by nuzzling up with the person to calm him or her when they get anxious.

"As a society, we are more in tuned to the fact that dogs are very much in tune with humans and can help us to adjust to situations," Tarkowski said.

"I think it's great," she said.

Just as there are more service dogs, there are more comfort dogs in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and on college campuses. While that's also great, Tarkowski said, it may be confusing because comfort dogs are meant to be petted by people who are ill or stressed.

If it's unclear to you whether the dog is a service dog or a comfort dog, ask, she said. One easy distinction is that handlers of comfort dogs often invite people to pet their dogs.

While people with disabilities and their service dogs interacting more with other Central Illinoisans is good, it makes knowing service dog regulations and etiquette important.

"The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) says people with service dogs can go anywhere the general public is invited," Tarkowski said.

"A business owner can't ask anything about your disability," she said. "But a business owner can ask 'What tasks does your dog help you to perform?' How a person answers will tell the business owner whether the dog is a legitimate service dog or not."

While there are few examples of a person entering a business and trying to pass their untrained dog off as a service dog, it does happen, Tarkowski said.

"It gives those of us who work hard with our service dogs a bad name," she said.

"Service dogs must be house-broken," Tarkowski said. "If a service dog has an accident, the handler must clean it up and pay for damages.

"If the dog is vicious, the business owner can ask the person to take the dog outside. If the dog is behaving inappropriately, such as eating off the table at a restaurant, the business owner also can ask the handler to take the dog outside," Tarkowski said.

It's unlikely that trained service or guide dogs would do those things, she said.

In addition to helping people to live with their disabilities, service dogs also make people with disabilities more approachable.

"You (blind people) meet more people than you would with a cane," Tarkowski said.

The challenge is some well-meaning people don't know the etiquette of dealing with a service dog and their handler.

One common mistake is people petting a service dog without asking the handler.

The problem is that confuses and distracts the dog, who knows that when he's working, he shouldn't be petted by anyone other than his handler.

"People may come up and say 'Oh what a nice dog' and begin petting him," Tarkowski said. "I tell people 'Don't pet my dog. He's a working dog and he helps me to get from place to place. Petting him confuses him and it's a distraction, which may become a safety concern."

Tarkowski prefers that people come up to her and ask whether they can pet the dog.

"I would say "I really appreciate you asking. But he's a working dog and I don't allow anyone to pet him when he's working.' If they want to know why, I'll explain to them that it's a safety concern."

Second and third mistakes are people thinking they are helping the blind person with the service dog by grabbing the person by the arm or grabbing the harness of the service dog to help the blind person across the street or through a busy store.

In both instances, the dog is getting mixed signals and is confused and may push forward even though the blind person has not given the command to move. The startled person may fall. Or the dog may not move because he hasn't been given a command even as the blind person is being led by the hand, also increasing the likelihood of a fall.

"Grabbing his harness is equal to someone grabbing the steering wheel while you're driving.

"It sort of freaks me out because he can't do his job," Tarkowski said. "I've told people 'No, don't do that.'"

"If you think a person with a service dog is in need of assistance, ask them," she said.

A fourth offense is people seeing a service dog and wanting to give it a dog treat or even human food in a restaurant. Some people don't even ask, prompting Tarkowski to have to tell the dog "no" to having the treat before she explains to the person that the dog shouldn't be fed while he's working.

A fifth, though less-common offense, is drivers honking for Tarkowski and her dog to cross the street. She concedes that the drivers are trying to be courteous.

"But I don't trust a guy who's driving," she said. "I'm listening for traffic from all directions. I don't cross until my dog and I know it's safe to cross. Also, we know how quickly we can get across the street."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Editor

Health Editor for The Pantagraph.

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