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Expert Advice on How to Approach an Assistance Dog in Public

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Including our beloved dogs at weddings is not a new trend, but is certainly one that continues to gain in popularity within the wedding planning community. But, not all dogs in the UK are considered family pets.

Over 7,000 people rely on the highly trained help of an assistance dog or canine partner to give them greater independence and emotional support in their daily lives, according to Assistance Dogs UK. At times, this support will often extend to special events and personal occasions, like the wedding of a handler or owner.

Meanwhile, research from Guide Dogs UK shows that 94% of dog owners would like to give their fur babies a starring role in their wedding celebrations, from having their pets being part of the first dance (42%) and walking the bride down the aisle (39%), to being the Dog of Honour or Best Mutt (37%) or taking responsibility as the ring bearer (30%).

Ahead of World Blindness Awareness Month, wedding experts at leading wedding planning platform Hitched.co.uk spoke to experts from Guide Dogs UK and Canine Partners on how to thoughtfully include a working dog in your big day.

Paul Martin from Guide Dogs UK tells Hitched: “Many of our guide dog owners will give their canine partner a starring role in recognition of the special place they have in their life. A bride will often walk down the aisle with her guide dog, whereas a groom may have their assistance dog with them at the altar.

“We’ve seen guide dogs with their harnesses decorated with flower garlands, lace or ribbon to match the colour scheme or even made an honorary bridesmaid. Bandanas and bow ties are also a great choice.

“It’s also worth remembering that people with sight loss will very often have friends and family who have sight loss themselves, so there will likely be other guide dogs or retired guide dog guests at the wedding. Getting them all together for a celebratory photograph is a must.

“Just like pet dogs, assistance dogs will need a break during this busy day, and a safe quiet place to be left when the party gets underway if their owner doesn’t need their support.”

Paul says there are a range of reasons why someone might rely on the support of a canine partner. The most common assistance dog types in the UK include guide and hearing dogs, medical alert dogs (for seizures, diabetes, etc), PTSD/trauma dogs, autism support dogs, and assistance dogs for people who use a wheelchair to get around.

Tips for greeting an assistance dog

Claire Anthony, Interim Head of Operations & Aftercare Manager, Canine Partners shares advice for dog lovers who may want to greet a working dog while at a wedding. “Many of our partnerships will attend weddings in support of their friends and families as well as potentially look at involvement for their own wedding days. As a canine partner, they have Assistance Dogs access rights to attend churches and wedding venues.

“If you see an Assistance Dog at a wedding, they are most likely working. Automatically approaching the dog first, by either speaking to or touching them, may distract the dog and take away his attention from his human partner. If for some reason an Assistance Dog does approach you, check with their human partner in the first instance if they need assistance. It may be that the dog has just been distracted by something or someone and if this is the case, the human partner will be grateful to you for ignoring the dog to allow refocus of his attention.

“However, some Assistance Dogs are trained to seek help from other humans in case of emergency, so, once again, check with the human partner to see if assistance is required.”

Considerations before including a dog in a wedding

Rima Barakeh, deputy editor and wedding expert at Hitched.co.uk shares her top tips on how to include your dog in your big day, while being mindful of all parties included – vendors, guests, and the dogs themselves.

Rima says: “As lovely as it would be to have your dog walking down the aisle with you, there are a number of things to consider before you make the decision to have a pet-friendly wedding. From venue permission and allergies, to training and practise runs, there’s a lot to consider before deciding to include your dog in your wedding day.

“Ultimately, when making this decision, you need to look at your big day through your dog’s eyes. Is this going to be an enjoyable experience for them? Will they have a fun day? Is it feasible? Being able to include your beloved pet in your wedding is an amazing thing, but it has to work on a practical level for you, your guests, the wedding venue and most importantly, your pet.”

Check with your venue

Before anything else, you need to check with your wedding venue that they allow dogs on the premises. Most wedding venues will have a pet or animal policy that they can share with you.

Some venues will be more than happy to open their doors to animals, some will only allow pets to be outside, and others won’t allow pets on site at all. If having your dog at your wedding is completely non-negotiable, this is something you should check with venues before you book and get tied into any contracts.

If you do get the go ahead, and if at all possible, try and take your dog to the venue before the big day for a bit of a ‘practise run’. This is a great chance to see whether or not there are any triggers for your pet such as loud noises, busy car parks or any other animals on site that could be an issue on the day.

Allocate a dedicated dog sitter

When dogs are included in weddings, it’s likely that their main role will be during the ceremony either as a ring bearer or walking the couple down the aisle – it makes for gorgeous wedding pictures!

If that’s your plan, make sure you have a trusty dog-lover, maybe someone from your wedding party, to keep your pup occupied in the in-between parts of the day. Ideally, this should be someone who knows your pet and who they are familiar with.

Remember their needs

On an average day, most pet owners will take their dogs for walks at least twice a day. The structure of a wedding day doesn’t always allow for rest-and-relax breaks, so ensure your dog has scheduled times throughout the wedding day to have a run around and let off some steam too.

Similarly, think of their personality. If your dog is shy and doesn’t like being around people, or if they’re very overly energetic and excitable, it may not be the right fit to have them at your wedding. As lovely as the idea is, for some couples, having your pet at your wedding just isn’t what’s best for them.

Pup-are, pup-are, pup-are!

Not all dogs are well-accustomed to large groups of people so, before the big day, embrace as many opportunities as possible to get your pooch out and about with larger crowds.

Family BBQs or pet-friendly festivals are great events to see whether or not your dog is comfortable at big events. I’d also advise some form of rehearsal or training to prepare your pet, especially if you’re planning on having them as your ring bearer.

Consider your guests

Do you have any wedding guests who are allergic to dogs? Do any of the staff at the venue, or your suppliers have an allergy or fear of pets? Is someone deathly afraid? Whilst it doesn’t have to be a ‘them or the dog’ situation, it’s worth informing people so that they can take extra measures such as taking anti-histamine tablets and being aware that they should keep their distance on the day.

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