For most handlers, service dogs are their lifelines–their means to greater independence and a chance at a relatively normal life despite their disability. Due to the increase in misinformation surrounding Service Dogs vs. Support Dogs, it can prove challenging to navigate a non-pet-friendly establishment where the general public may or may not be fond of the presence of dogs. Additionally, there has been a growing concern over the safety of legitimate service animals when untrained support animals illegally accompany their owners in non-pet-friendly areas. It is our hope that the general public worldwide will one day be accurately educated on the proper etiquette that should be exercised around service dogs.
STARING IS NOT CARING
While staring at a service dog or working team may seem harmless, doing so may cause distress to the handler and may prove to be distracting for a service dog or service dog in training. Staring at any individual, especially disabled individuals, is not readily accepted by our society as appropriate behavior. Rather, such action may be considered rude and intrusive. Many handlers already experience anxiety from increased interactions with the public regarding their service dogs, inappropriate demands of personal information and other intrusive behavior. Respectfully ignoring a service dog and allowing it to work alongside its handler without unnecessary staring allows the handler to go about their day as an equal member of society and is much appreciated by handlers worldwide.
SPEAK TO THE HANDLER
When making the decision to interact with a service dog team, please address the handler. A simple introduction before turning your attention to their service dog without permission is not respectful and may cause their service dog or service dog in training to become distracted from their job. Instead, speak to the handler regarding your matter and the handler may choose to invite you to greet their service dog if they feel comfortable enough to do so. If a handler seems busy, uncomfortable, unwell or is not in a sociable mood, the handler should not be forced to communicate and should instead be allowed to continue on their way without further interruption. However, if the handler allows you to interact with their service dog, please keep in mind the service dog’s important job of mitigating their handler’s disability to best ensure their safety. By keeping your visit brief, you will allow the service dog to continue working and minimize potential medical issues from the distraction of interaction.
Although some handlers have been known to allow an individual to pet their dog with permission, asking to pet service dogs is discouraged. In an ideal situation, an individual would only pet a service dog when invited, not after requesting to do so. When asking to interact with a service dog, a person is requesting the dog take a break from their important job of working to mitigate their handler’s disability. This has proven to be detrimental to several handlers who have suffered medical emergencies due to their dog being distracted by an individual who has chosen to pet their dog, often times without the handler’s consent. When possible, it is best to allow a working team to carry on about their day since they often have a purpose for being in the same public establishment, too. In short, please do not pet service dogs.
Service dog handlers will often agree their dog is adorable! However, it is in poor taste to snap a photo of a working team or service dog without the handler’s permission. Service dogs are federally recognized as medical equipment, making them equivalent to a wheelchair, walker or oxygen tank. Would it be reasonably acceptable to take a photo of an individual using such medical equipment that improves the quality of their life? A service dog team is not a celebrity who has readily accepted a lifestyle filled with paparazzi. Rather, a working team consists of a disabled individual and a working dog that is specifically task-trained to mitigate their disability. Taking a photo of a team–even just one–without their permission is an uncomfortable violation of privacy and may negatively affect that individual long-term depending on their disability and struggles.
MEDICAL RECORDS ARE PRIVATE
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act allows covered entities to inquire about a service dog’s trained tasks, handlers are NOT required to disclose private information regarding their disability, including their medical diagnoses. Furthermore, the general public is not entitled to ask or demand a handler to disclose any information, including their service dog’s trained tasks.
DISTRACTION CAN KILL
Some handlers have life-threatening disabilities and rely on their service dogs to keep them safe during medical emergencies. While some people feel that staring, petting or talking to a service dog may be harmless, such distractions can cause a service dog to miss a crucial alert to emergencies such as an oncoming seizure or fainting spell. If a handler is not warned enough time in advance, this can cause them to collapse, putting them in danger of harm such as a concussion–or even worse. Service dogs are not here for the general public’s entertainment or enjoyment, rather they have an important and lifesaving job at hand. Interacting with someone’s service dog is not worth the responsibility of being the reason a handler’s life is in danger. Often times, those with life-threatening disabilities have “invisible” illnesses that are not readily apparent to the public. When in doubt, rather than risking distracting a service dog from their job, an individual may choose to offer a friendly smile to the handler and simply continue on their day.
In conclusion, handlers are just like you! Despite the extra difficulties and challenges they face, when they’re out and about, they still want to be treated like an average human being, regardless of their disability and the presence of their service dog. Service dogs are legally considered medical equipment for their handlers–so if you wouldn’t treat someone differently, distract them or engage them because of their wheelchair, their oxygen tank or other medical device, please extend the same courtesy to service dog handlers. Their service dog is just ONE of many dogs you will encounter in your life and by ignoring the disabled handler’s lifeline and allowing their service dog to carry out its important job, you will be helping that handler succeed in regaining their independence and working hard at being an equal part of society.