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Etiquette: How to Act Around Assistance Dogs

Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.

As a disability advocate and writer, I have seen dogs assist disabled people in many amazing ways. Here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with people with disabilities and their service animals.

Types of Assistance Dogs

Dogs can serve disabilities in various ways. Here are some of the most common.

Guide Dogs for the Blind

We commonly associated service dogs as guides to the blind, helping their owners to avoid obstacles. According to the website Healthy Pets, these animals are also taught “willful disobedience.” Dogs will disobey their owners if a command puts the handlers in harm's way, such as trying to lead the dog into a busy street.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs help people with hearing loss by alerting them to sounds such as a baby crying, a doorbell, or a phone ringing. They can also lead their handlers to the source of noises. Handlers can take cues from how their dogs react to their environment. For example, a dog may turn to look at something or stop abruptly, prompting the handler to do the same.

Alert Dogs for Conditions Such as Diabetes and Epilepsy

Some service dogs undergo special training to serve people with chronic illnesses. According to Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, these service animals are able to warn people with diabetes when their blood glucose is low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar before the levels become dangerous.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, these dogs warn people with epilepsy or family members when a seizure is coming. They are trained to lie next to a person who is seizing to protect the person from injury and to break the fall of a seizing person. Some are able to activate a special device that starts an alarm.

Assistants to the Physically Disabled

These dogs are specially trained to help people with physical disabilities in various ways such as:

  • Helping the person to move and change positions
  • Retrieving out-of-reach items
  • Pressing buttons for elevators, opening automatic doors, or opening doors in other ways
  • Picking up dropped items
  • Carrying items such as shopping bags
  • Turn lights off and on
  • Going to another person in the home for help
  • Call emergency services via a dog-friendly phone
  • Pushing paralyzed limbs back in place

Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs

These animals provide support to people who have mental health issues such as:

  • Anxiety/ panic attacks
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Fears/phobias
  • Mood disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Suicidal Thoughts

According to Americans with Disabilities Act FAQs page, the US identifies differences between emotional support animals, therapy animals, and psychiatric service dogs, although the animals may serve similar purposes. Psychiatric service dogs receive individualized training such as guiding disoriented people while emotional support dogs may not have a lot of training.

In the US, psychiatric service dogs have the right to accompany their owners in public places that emotional support animals do not. Some regions vary in their acceptance of emotional support animals in certain places. Some countries either do not have definitions and standards in place or are working on them.

Etiquette When Dealing with Service Dog Handlers

Treat Animal Owners With Respect

Do not engage handlers in conversation unless they initiate it. According to the International Association of Canine Professionals, here are some unacceptable ways that people talk to assistance dog handlers:

  • “What happened?”
  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “Can you give me a demonstration?”
  • “What is the dog’s name?”
  • “Your dog is so good.”
  • “I know I shouldn’t pet him, but I can’t resist.”
  • “My friend fosters service dogs.”

Many disabled handlers feel that probing questions like these are disrespectful and an invasion of their privacy. Another invasion is taking a picture of the dog and sharing it on social media.

Speak to the Dog’s Owner, Not the Dog

When we see these trained, well-behaved dogs, our first instinct is to go over and pet them. We need to resist this impulse. Communication should directed to assistance dog handlers. The handlers may be offended because they feel they are being ignored. Do not praise animals when they complete their tasks.

Tapping legs or clapping hands to get the dogs’ attention is not acceptable behavior and distracts dogs from doing their jobs. Distractions may interfere with the handlers delivering a command. The dogs may be in the middle of alerting their handlers to a potentially harmful situation such as potentially dangerous blood sugar levels or warning of an upcoming seizure.

Ask Permission Before Petting the Dog

Ask dog owners before touching their working dogs. Some handlers may grant permission to pat the animal, but many have strict no petting rules. Some canines become so distracted by this kind of attention that their owners are put into a dangerous or life-threatening situation. If you have a pet dog yourself, keep it away from the service animal unless the handler says your dog is allowed to approach.

Let the Handler Know If the Service Animal Approaches You

Tell the owner if the dog comes towards you, or sniffs or nudges you. Do not interact with the dog; let the owner correct the dog’s behavior.

Etiquette Regarding Service Dogs

Service dog etiquette involves respecting the animal's role and not interfering with their duties. There are several things we can do to support them.

Recognize the Assistance Dog Is Doing a Job

Assistance animals have a job to do. They are actively fulfilling their purpose by doing things such as keeping their owner out of harm’s way, alerting them to medical or other dangers, or providing emotional support. We should not call them or interact with them as doing so may put handlers in danger. The animals are trained to focus on tasks at hand until their handlers signal that they are released.

Training starts when service dogs are puppies. They need at least two years of preparation before they are ready to fulfill their roles. The animals must be eager to please their handlers and willing to work. They have special training that matches their temperament and skills.

Do Not Physically Handle the Assistance Animal

If a service dog and his owner seem to need help, ask how you can help rather than grabbing the harness. Grabbing a dog’s harness hinders the dog’s ability to assist its owner. Working animals will catch some ZZZs when their handlers are sitting or standing for some time, but a sleeping dog is not necessarily off duty.

Do Not Feed the Service Dog

Dogs are trained not to beg and to ignore food in their environment. Offered food can distract animals from their duties. Some foods may not be good for the dogs and may make them sick. Sick animals cannot work until they are well. Service dogs are fed a suitable diet and often have scheduled feeding times.

Don’t Assume That the Animals Do Not Have Downtime

Working dogs usually get lots of playtime, exercise, and rest when they are home.

Avoid Fake Service Dogs

There has been an increase in media reports of people passing off their pets as service dogs so that they could take their animals with them when shopping or in other public places. This practice is potentially dangerous to the public for a number of reasons:

  • Pets are not trained to be in public places. They are unpredictable, may panic, bark, or even bite someone.
  • There is a chance that a nervous or poorly trained dog will go to the bathroom on a floor and leave a deposit that creates a health hazard.
  • Some people are allergic to dogs and will have a reaction to the presence of the animal.
  • Fake service dogs may attack real service animals, putting the handler in danger.

There have been media reports of fake emotional support dogs attacking people in public places such as airplanes. Some states in the U.S. now have laws in place or pending bills in their legislatures banning people from passing pets off as service dogs.

Dogs are amazing animals who, with proper training, can provide incredible support to people with disabilities. The service dogs and their handlers should be treated with respect in order to ensure that interaction is safe and does not interfere with the service dog's duties.

References:

Diabetic Alert Dogs of America
Epilepsy Foundation
Americans with Disabilities Act, FAQs page
Assistance Dog Etiquette, AI Media
Service Dog Etiquette, International Association of Canine Professionals
The Rule for Service Dogs: Don't Touch or Distract Them, Healthy Pets
6 Ways a Service Dog Can Help a Quadriplegic Be More Independent, SpinalCord.com

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Carola Finch

Comments

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 25, 2018:

I learned service dog etiquette in 1968. One of my friends was blind, and could not do much outside her apartment without her service dog. She taught me that the dog was a necessary part of her. I was to address her, never the dog. I was not to pet or feed the dog. She felt anyone who touched her dog was actually touching her. During our friendship I learned the dog had plenty of down or fun time. When my friend was in her apartment she really had no need for the dog. Heaven forbid though that you move something in the apartment. The dog would be right there trying to put whatever was moved back where it belonged. The apartment building owner had a special area where the dog could play and take care of it's bodily functions. This area was cleaned daily by the building manager. Those who were alive in those days realize this was not common for any animal at that period of time.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on March 24, 2018:

Thank you for a very informative, well-written, and timely article.

I do recognize that some individuals truly need emotional support animals, but fear that there are too many people trying to pass off their toy pom as a service dog so that they can take their baby with them everywhere. It creates a potentially bad environment not only for the reasons that you mentioned but also because it creates resentment against ALL service animals, even those that are legitimate and necessary.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 23, 2018:

Excellent article. Having worked with individuals who have service animals, these tips are spot on. One of my colleagues at the time informed me that his dog had a "public" name and a "private" name. This was to keep people from learning the dog's working name, to prevent the dog from being distracted. Indeed, the general public needs more awareness.

Your advice and guidelines will certainly assist those who do not understand the value of these animals for people with disabilities.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Tim

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