If your first instinct when you see a service dog is to think, “Aww, how cute,” you’re pretty typical.  Who doesn’t love and want to approach these hard-working canine helpers?  Behaving appropriately around these furry friends while they’re at work is a huge help to their owners and their dogs. Let’s take a look at how the public should know about how to behave around service dogs.

Service Dog Behaving Lovingly Beside Pool

What Exactly is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a dog that has been specifically trained to help individuals with disabilities.  The organizations and people that train these animals tend to equip them to assist with a specific disability.  For example, one provider might train only guide dogs for people who are visually impaired, while another focuses entirely on psychiatric therapy dogs. (For more information on the types of service dogs, see here).

These canine helpers have an invaluable impact on the lives of people with a wide range of disabilities such as hearing impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, seizures, and mobility issues.  All of these furry assistants have in common two desirable traits:  good health and good temperament.  While any breed or breed mix could become trained for this work, the most common are German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. In the event you are training your own service animal, check out our free service dog training resources.

The training these animals go through equips each dog to perform a number of helpful tasks.  Examples include bringing medication and reminding the owner to take it, responding to smoke alarms, awakening an owner for a job or for school, turning on lights, and providing balance when navigating stairs.  Some of these dogs can even open refrigerator doors or alert an owner that their blood sugar is too low.

What are Service Dog Requirements?

Service dogs are sometimes mistaken for therapy or emotional support dogs. It is important to know that they are not the same. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the following requirements apply to service animals:

  • Service animals must be canines or miniature horses.
  • Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, can not be considered service animals.
  • The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability.

The Do's and Dont's for Behaving Around Service Dogs

The Do’s and Dont’s Around Service Dogs

This is the core information on how to behave around service dogs. A service dog and the person assisted comprise a team.  Thinking of them as a unit is very useful.  Here are 10 helpful hints on how to behave around them in public:

  • If you decide to approach, speak to the person first, not the dog.  The individual will tell you whether petting or even going near the dog is a good idea.
  • When you have your own dog with you, ask the owner if you should approach with your pet.  Talking directly to or trying to touch the dog can confuse the pooch.  Even better, consider teaching your dog not to greet every dog encountered.
  • Always let the team have the right of way.  This includes entering or exiting a room, getting on or off an airplane, crossing the street, or moving around a mall.
  • Understand that not all service dogs wear special vests or harnesses.  U.S. law doesn’t require this type of identification.  The dog you assume to be a pet might be working.
  • Don’t whistle or make other sounds intended to convey affection around the dog.  This can be extremely distracting.
  • Don’t get upset if an owner declines further contact.  While some people are eager to introduce their dogs, explain how they work, or encourage petting, others aren’t.
  • Avoid asking questions about the handler’s disability or other personal circumstances.  Instead, ask what the dog is able to do.
  • NEVER offer a service dog food or treats.  Although these pooches have been trained not to beg for goodies and to ignore any food on the ground, offering something can cause distraction.  If consumed, it might make the dog sick.
  • Always ask the handler if the team needs assistance before grabbing a dog’s harness or leash.  If he or she declines, don’t be offended.  There might be a good reason.
  • DON’T feel sorry for service dogs.  Most of them spend more time with their owners than the average pet does and get plenty of love and affection. This one cannot be understated enough. While they do perform tasks to assist their owner, they’re often treated as part of the family and receive incredible amounts of love and affection.

Boy with his Service Dog

Children and Service Dogs

One important aspect of proper behavior around service animals is teaching children how to behave when they see service dogs.  Youngsters are naturally fascinated by dogs.  Their immediate reaction is to run up to a dog, especially if the animal is in a public place like a library or a restaurant where pets aren’t usually present.

Adults accompanying children should realize that not all dogs are comfortable around youngsters.  Although socialization is part of their training, many service dogs aren’t accustomed to being around small children.  Above all else, it’s important to keep children from running up to a service dog.  A child who cries or wails after being rebuffed by an owner can upset the dog.  When a child spots a service dog with vest or harness for the first time, it’s important that adults present explain that the dog is working and keep the youngster from distracting the animal.

service dog vest

Service dogs change the lives of thousands of Americans every year. There are estimates of between 100,000 and 200,000 trained service dogs in the United States. These highly trained helpers deserve the utmost respect and admiration for their capabilities and their devotion.  Understanding the proper etiquette around them will help put you at ease and allow them to focus on providing topnotch assistance to their handlers.

Jason Statson

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