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Etiquette for Service Dogs

When we encounter a person with blindness and their guide dog, our natural inclination is to reach out and offer assistance. We smile at the sweet Labrador or Golden Retriever in his vest and brace and want to say “good boy!” and give him a hug.

But that’s actually the wrong reaction and you’ve broken four important rules of service animal etiquette:

  1. Do not speak to a service dog.
  2. Do not touch a service dog.
  3. Do not speak to a service dog’s handler.
  4. Do not offer help unless specifically requested.

That may feel like bad manners, but there are good reasons to resist interacting with service dogs. They are working animals and on the job, not simply a pet on a walk. Despite your best intentions, the Association of Canine Professionals says please refrain.

Whys and why nots

The most important reason for observing this code of conduct is for the protection of the person handling the animal while maneuvering their way, and for the dog focused on their task. Just as you wouldn't interrupt your boss on the phone or a colleague in a meeting, reaching out to pet a service dog is a distraction. Be respectful and let the animal concentrate. Also, not engaging with the person and animal partner shows sensitivity for their privacy. Imagine getting stopped throughout the day by strangers asking personal questions.

These protocols don’t apply to emotional support animals that aren’t highly trained.

Dos and don’ts

The list of proper behavior around a service animal team goes further:

  • Don’t beckon the animal (tapping your leg, whistling, etc.)
  • Don’t offer food or treats
  • Don’t take photos or videos
  • Don’t discuss the person’s disability
  • Don’t praise the dog or ask the animal’s name
  • Do keep your own dog at a distance
  • Do teach your children not to stare, point, approach or talk about them

Health lifelines

In addition to dogs for the visually impaired or mobility support, skilled animals perform medical assistance for less obvious conditions including: blood pressure, seizure alert, diabetes, allergies, cancer and more. These dogs must be prepared for emergencies, so any interference could jeopardize someone's safety.

The person and animal partner won’t be offended if you ignore them. They exchange warm fuzzies during off-time. It’s best to acknowledge these special dogs’ impressive work through these support organizations: Freedom Service DogsPaws With a CauseCanine Companions for Independence