We see dogs all around us, but how do you know whether a dog you see out in public is a service dog or just a pet? Most service dogs will be wearing some sort of vest. When you see one of these on a dog or a dog out with their handler who has a disability, it means they are working. Even if the dog is sitting or lying down they are still on the job and need to be responsive to their handler. Distracting the dog with food, toys, or by petting them can even be dangerous for their handler who depends on them to be ready and fully focused on them.
This isn’t to say that you should ignore a service dog team; you can talk to them just like anyone else. In fact, many people will welcome it. Here are a few service dog etiquette tips to remember when interacting with a person who has a service dog.
Service dogs, when out in public, are working to help their person with everyday tasks or to assist with the symptoms of an illness. It is vital that the dog’s attention stay focused on their person. Remember, too, that the person is probably out for a purpose, (seeing a movie, going to an appointment, out with friends, etc.), just like everyone else. Be thoughtful about interrupting their day to greet them or ask questions.
We’ve all done it. We see an adorable dog walking down the sidewalk and immediately our baby talk voice comes out and we’re talking to the dog, even before we say “hello” to the person walking beside them. While it can be tempting to go straight for those cute puppy dog eyes, mind your manners and remember to talk to the person first.
This is another easy one to forget. You may be talking to the handler or walking near them and naturally reach out to pet the dog. While this can seem harmless, it’s important to remember that these dogs are on the clock when they are out with their handlers. They have an important job to do and may be distracted by your affection. It’s absolutely okay to ask permission to pet their dog, but it’s also important to remember that if they say no, they have a good reason for it — and you should respectfully accept their “no.”
Because their job is so important, service dogs have different rules for behavior than pet dogs do. If they do choose to have you interact, a service dog’s owner may need you to wait for the dog to sit before you pet it, or ask you not to let the dog lick your face, or have other guidelines for how the dog must behave. Listening to and following the owner’s instructions will help avoid the dog learning bad habits that might jeopardize its ability to help its human partner.
There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, you cannot know if that dog has a special diet and should not eat certain foods. Whatever you offer them could accidentally make them sick. And second, as we said before, this dog is working. If you were working and someone brought in cake, you’d probably be pretty distracted, too. It is essential for the service dog to remain fully focused on their handler.
It’s inspiring to see a human/dog team working together to navigate the world, and natural to have questions about how they learned to do it. When interacting with a person working with a service dog, ask thoughtful questions like “How does the dog help you?” or “How was the dog trained?” rather than “Why do you need a dog?” or “Why can’t I bring MY dog to the movies?” They have a right to privacy just like you do. Many people are open about sharing what their service dog does for them, but if they do not offer that information, be polite, and don’t intrude on their privacy.
If you see a service dog team out in public and you thing they need help, be sure to ask before you do anything. Jumping into action can create confusion for the dog and the handler and may end up creating more chaos than help. And remember to respect what they handler says if they say they do not need your assistance. Even if you don’t see it, there’s a good reason for what they’re doing.