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How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

Thousands of people rely on service dogs to live independently. For individuals used to thinking of dogs purely as pets, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Fido is working and not looking for belly rubs. For individuals with a disability, their service dog is their lifeline. 

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How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

Most of us learned The Golden Rule as kids: to treat others like you would want to be treated. Many religions worldwide even recognize it in their texts. When we apply it in our daily lives, it makes us more aware and mindful of the situations of others. Cue the Michael Jackson Heal the World tune ” then the world will be a better place… for you… and for me…”

In all seriousness though, when we approach situations with this mindset, considering how we might feel from the receiving end, it helps us to grow stronger in empathy towards others. Applying The Golden Rule to service dogs and their owners in public is the best bet for ensuring the safety of everyone involved. 

Service Dog Definitions

The term service dog gets misused and misunderstood. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as the following:

“A service dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. They are working animals, not pets. Animals whose sole purpose is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as a service animal.”

Service Dogs assist their owners in a variety of ways. A service dog may guide their blind owner safely across a street, bring its owner lifesaving medication, or fetch items for its owner in a wheelchair. A hearing dog may help a deaf owner by alerting them to a fire alarm that they cannot hear. A Psychiatric Service Dog may calm its owner who is having a panic attack. Truly, service dogs are essential and should be viewed as such. They become an extension of their owners – providing them with assistance to perform tasks that the owner otherwise might not be able to do.

Get Your ESA Today


Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

Service Dog Guidelines

Service dogs are allowed to go anywhere that their handler can go, even if the establishment typically doesn’t allow pets. You can read more about where service dogs can and cannot go, here.

Service dogs will often wear a vest or harness in public indicating that they are on the job. However, it’s important to note that service dogs are not required to wear vests or indicators that they are working. The ADA protects service dog owners from discrimination. As a business owner, if you are trying to determine if an individual has a legitimate service dog, there are only 2 questions that may be asked:

1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Handlers do not need to provide certification of their service dog. These limits are to protect the handlers from discrimination. However, you can usually spot a service dog by its good behavior. Not that pets poorly behave, but service dogs have specialized behavior and task training and are well behaved in public settings.

How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

Proper Service Dog Etiquette

Now that we have clarity on what a service dog is, let’s discuss how to interact with a dog on the job.

1. Do not distract a Service Dog.

Service Dogs are trained to perform their tasks without paying attention to anyone other than their handler, but they can get distracted just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of how dangerous a small distraction can be to a service dog’s owner. Waving and trying to get the attention of a guide dog helping its owner to cross a busy street can be life-threatening to the owner.

I recently read a story of a teenager who warned a stranger not to pet her seizure alert service dog. He didn’t listen and she had a seizure while the man was petting her service dog. The stranger was unaware that the dog had alerted her that a seizure was coming on and she ended up getting injured because her dog was distracted and unable to help her.

2. Only interact if you have permission.

If you need to approach a service dog, speak with the handler first to get their permission. Service Dogs love pats and belly scratches like any other dog. But you never know when they may be in the middle of assisting their handler with something- even if it doesn’t look like it. Please behave as the handler requests to avoid a situation like what happened with Hailey(above).

If you have kids, help them to understand why it’s important to always have permission to pet a dog from the owner first.

How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

3. Keep your pets away.

It sounds harsher than it is, but it goes back to keeping the service dog owner safe. A working dog doesn’t need other pets to greet them or try to play with them distract them while they are on the job. Just imagine if a group of strangers busts through the door of your office while you were working – it would cause you to stop what you’re working on and would be super distracting. This is the equivalent of your dog trying to sniff out a service dog they might encounter in a public setting.

4. Do not feed someone else’s Service Dog.

Sorry, no treats are allowed. You just never know when a dog may have an allergy. If they had an allergic reaction, they would be unavailable to assist their handler, so it’s best to avoid offering them any kind of treats.

5. Service Dogs are still dogs.

If a service dog is sleeping, it does not mean that they are off duty. They need their ZZZ’s like the rest of us. When they are not working, they are just as playful and want attention like any other dog. If you encounter a Service Dog in the park, just be sure to interact with its handler first to find out if they are at the park for the owner or the dog.

6. An unattended Service Dog is a sign that help is needed.

Service Dogs are trained to fetch help so if a service dog approaches you without its handler, it should be taken seriously.

As a kid, my brother was OBSESSED with the TV show Lassie. Lassie was a playful Collie, and Timmy, her owner would always get into trouble. Lassie would run to fetch help when Timmy was in some predicament he needed help out of. Over the course of the twenty years or so that Lassie was on TV, she saved a lot of lives, so I am not making light of the topic. This is serious. If a service dog approaches you without its handler, don’t try to shoo it away. See if the dog prompts you to follow it and be prepared to help.

How to Behave Around Service Dogs in Public

Serious Business

In conclusion, you can clearly see that service dogs play an integral role in the health and well-being of their handlers. Even if they are the goodest boy… and irresistibly cute, when they are on the job, service dogs are off-limits for pets and cuddles. They have a special job to do and can’t be distracted from keeping their hoomans safe.
Now that you know the etiquette, you can educate others and help them to keep service dog owners safe.
ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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