Service dogs are beautiful, highly trained, and gifted animals that can only do their job when those around them use proper etiquette and manners.
When trained properly, service dogs provide tasks and support that literally save lives. But often people don’t know how to behave around them in public. This is downright dangerous, extremely stressful, and even frightening to the individual who needs the service dog.
How do I know this? My youngest daughter’s life has been saved by her service dog more than once. I’ve trained over 50 service dogs for individuals and families all over the United States and have coached many more on how to train, acquire, and maintain their own service dog. Several of these dogs saved lives as well.
When it comes to service dogs, I get asked the same questions by people in public, folks thinking of getting a service dog, and those already with one.
Here’s what you need to know:
Is it okay to ask to pet a service dog in public?
As much as they are beautiful and almost irresistible creatures, the short answer is, no. It isn’t any different than a gorgeous bomb detection or drug sniffing dog at the airport. He/she has a critical job to do and isn’t there to fulfill your desire to be friendly.
Interacting in any way with the trained companion can put the other half of the team in grave danger.
Children with autism may depend on the dog to tether and prevent them from running into traffic or crowds. People with blood sugar issues like hypoglycemia or diabetes require their dog to be keenly sensitive to the smallest fluctuations in blood sugar. Seizure alert dogs must read nearly invisible cues to assist with an impending life-threatening seizure.
Individuals with debilitating anxiety require their dogs to respond at a moment’s notice and don’t need additional anxiety over their service dog doing its job.
The service dog you wish you could pet, may be in the middle of a command or task, and could be waiting to be released from that command.
Please understand that your selfish desire to make a new acquaintance for two minutes does not supersede the seriousness of what this animal has been trained for nearly a quarter of its lifespan, to do for an individual with a disability. You would not dream of walking up to a K-9 law enforcement dog team, search and rescue, or a cadaver dog while working and petting them while they are performing their jobs. How is this any different?
How should I treat the owner/handler of the service dog?
Treat the person with the service dog with empathy, respect, and lots of patience. It is no small task to get a dog in and out of a vehicle multiple times a day, feed and water it, take it to relieve itself, answer peoples’ endless questions, and attend to regular life tasks, matters, appointments, and errands, all day long. It is even exhausting for someone without a disability, chronic pain, seizures, trauma, etc. Ask anyone who has been a puppy raiser or service dog trainer.
Is it okay for my dog to say hello to the service dog?
No, not unless you are invited to do so. Service dogs have been tested for a very specific temperament. Pet dogs usually have not. It is a terrible distraction for a pet dog, even a relatively well-behaved one, to interact with a service dog. It may seem fun to you but it is not fun or productive for the service dog or his/her handler.
Do service dogs work all the time or do they ever get to be “just a regular dog.”
Service dog handlers are taught the importance of a balance of work time, play time, and rest time. Most service dogs know that when their vest or harness comes off, that it’s rest or play time. They typically make a dramatic shift in behavior when the “uniform” comes off. Most handlers ensure that their service dog gets plenty of time to exercise and to rest.
It has been proven that dogs who have a job or purpose, are mentally stimulated, and get plenty of exercise, do live healthier, longer, and happier lives. Service dogs are truly lucky dogs in this regard.
Is it okay to ask what the service dog does or about the disability?
No. If you are another person in the public arena, that is not only rude but an invasion of privacy. If, however, you are a store owner or manager or someone professionally inquiring for public access determination, that is another matter, entirely. There are only two questions they are allowed to ask the person, to determine ADA public access rights.
How long does it take to train a service dog?
It varies on the tasks it must perform. Most service dogs need basic obedience and socialization training for at least a year or more. Guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, and diabetic alert dogs may require another year or more of specialized training to do their jobs.
Seizure alert, autism, signal, mobility, PTSD dogs, and many other types of service dogs vary but may take anywhere from six months to two years of additional specialized task training depending on the number of tasks the dog must be trained to perform, the dog’s rate of maturation, size, breed, and many other factors.
Can I ask questions about the service dog?
It’s actually rude to ask questions and make statements about the dog. Common ones that are actually rude and distracting include: What’s his name? My friend fosters service dogs, where did you get your’s? Can you show me what he can do? I know I am not supposed to ask to pet him but he’s just so cute and I can’t resist.
The handler/owner is trying to live their life the best they can with a special need or health challenge. It is not their responsibility to answer your questions, entertain you, or make you feel better at the cost of their safety.
You probably would not ask personal questions about a stranger’s wheel chair, walker, crutches, or oxygen tank. It really isn’t any different when they require a service dog.
What should I do when I encounter a service dog?
Nothing. In fact, act just like he/she isn’t even there. The owner/handler will appreciate your manners and sensitivity.
What can the dog possibly be doing when it appears to be sleeping?
You might be surprised. Many service dogs are trained to wake up, even throughout the night and sniff their owner to detect or alert to various health issues. He/she may be resting from a long day of work or it may still be working or engaged in a command that you are not aware of.
Do’s and Don’ts of Service Dog Etiquette:
Don’t ever offer a service dog any food or treats without asking. Most have been trained to “leave it” unless commanded otherwise. Some are on special diets due to their additional mental and physical demands.
Do let the handler/owner know politely if the dog sniffs, nudges, or approaches you to make contact while in a line or while you are seated nearby. Typically they should not, and may need correction from the handler. The dog could possibly be in training.
Don’t point, stare, whistle, clap, take photographs or videos of the dog, or make loud comments about the service dog or the handler.
Don’t take it personally if the handler/owner rejects your request to interact with the dog.
Do keep your children, your pets, and yourself at a respectful distance when possible, to avoid distractions to the service dog.
Do take a few minutes to read and learn about the ADA access laws.
Don’t ever fake a service dog. If you and your pet are fraudulently abusing the law, you are doing a terribly detrimental disservice to those people who have a valid need and have spent money, time, and effort to obtain and train a life-saving service animal.