Most dog people enjoy petting the neighborhood dogs and saying hello to the pups at the park. Who doesn’t love giving a dog some head scratches? However, there are some dogs we can’t pet. Service dogs are cute like any other dog, but we can’t always pet them or say hello when we see them. Service dogs are working! 

So what do you do when you see a service dog out with its handler? What exactly is service dog etiquette?

First, let’s start with the basics.

What is a service dog?

A service dog is a dog that has been specially trained to assist a handler and perform tasks that mitigate their disability. Service dogs can go virtually anywhere a person goes; they’re legally classified as medical equipment, like a wheelchair. 

They typically take 1-2 years to train, depending on what they’re being trained for. There are two main aspects of training: disability mitigation and public access. This ensures they can help their handlers while also behaving properly in public. 

Service dogs generally cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, and sometimes even more than that. They can either be professionally trained by an organization, or some handlers will train their dog themselves with the guidance of professionals. 

I reached out to Antoinette Rodriguez, founder of Rettungs-Haus Shepherds, Inc. to learn more. She states, Oftentimes owners purchase or rescue a dog that is not emotionally nor physically sound to perform the high demands and tasks expected of a service dog. Seeking a reputable breeder and or professional that specializes in service dogs is strongly recommended as not every dog is cut out for every job.” 

German Shepherd Service Dog Shadow Dog Photography

Is a service dog right for you?

This is a complicated question. There are so many factors to consider. Do you have a legal disability? Depending on the severity of your disability, who’s going to care for the dog? Do you have a backup caretaker to assist with the daily needs of the dog? Have you considered the financial and time commitment involved with owning a service dog? Are you prepared for the daily training and practice to maintain the dog’s skills?

Some people buy service dog vests online and put them on their untrained pets so they can take them to stores and other establishments. Antoinette says, “People posing their untrained, fake service dogs as real service dogs do an injustice not only to the disabled individuals who work hard with their dog team to perfect their skills, but to their own dog as well. The untrained dog is unfairly subjected to a world full of stimuli and social situations they have not been properly trained for. This potentially puts both dogs and the public at risk.”

Now, to learn proper service dog etiquette, let’s move onto the DOs and DON’Ts of encountering service dogs.

Service dog etiquette: what to do when you see a service dog

DO:

  • Ignore the dog
  • Keep your pets at a distance and under control, if you’re in a pet-friendly environment
  • If speaking with the handler, focus on them and not the dog; service dogs aren’t on display for public entertainment, they’re there to work

DON’T:

  • Distract the service dog in any way! This includes petting, staring, whistling, cooing, making kissy noises, etc. (it’s actually illegal in many US states to distract a service dog and can be punishable by law)
  • Take pictures
  • Stare at the handler (or the dog)
  • Let your kids and pets approach them

 

When you meet a service dog handler

Meeting a service dog handler is the same as meeting anyone else! When talking to a handler, you’re just talking to a regular person. Don’t make everything about the dog.

 

What to do if a service dog approaches you

Many service dogs are trained to get help in emergency situations. For example, if a handler faints, the service dog may be trained to find a family member or a stranger and bring them back to help their human. 

If you’re ever approached by a service dog, it might be trying to lead you back to a handler who needs help. Follow the dog, but don’t grab onto its gear or leash. 

Teaching kids about service dogs

It’s unfortunately a common experience for kids to approach a service dog and try to pet it. Some parents even encourage it, even though service dogs are not to be pet or distracted. 

Distracting a service dog can put the handler’s life at risk. If the dog gets distracted, that can stop it from alerting the handler of their medical condition. For example, someone may have a seizure because their service dog missed the alert while being distracted.

Some kids think it’s like any other dog that they can pet because they don’t know any better. That’s why it’s crucial to educate children on the topic of service animals. Explain to them that they can’t say hi or pet the dog because he’s working. 

 

FAQ

Q. Does a service dog need a vest or other identification? 

A. No, it’s not required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).

Q. Is there a special certification for service dogs?

A. Not in the US, no, but each service dog organization has standards they train the dogs to meet. However, some companies trick people into buying fake “certification” papers that aren’t legally required. 

Q. Do service dogs have to be leashed?

A. Yes, UNLESS it interferes with the handler’s disability or the dog’s tasks.

Q. Is a service dog the same as an ESA (Emotional Support Animal)?

A. No. Service dogs are specially trained to perform tasks. ESAs and therapy dogs are often trained, but not for “task work.”

Q. Can you be denied access to an establishment because you have a service dog?

A. Not legally, no. However, if a service dog is out of control or not housebroken, they can legally be asked to leave. 

Q. Can I fly with my service dog?

A. There are TSA rules to follow for flying with your service dog. Health certifications and other paperwork may be required. Be sure to check with TSA for the most up to date information.

Final thoughts

Service dogs can be an open door for those with disabilities to live a more independent life. Keep service dog etiquette in mind when you see a dog out with its handler. Just remember: although service dogs may look cute, they are someone’s lifeline.