Interacting with Individuals Who Have Service Dogs

Through my work, I have the privilege of interacting with individuals who have service dogs as well as working alongside facility and therapy dogs. The other day, it was pointed out to me that a lot of people feel unsure about how to properly interact with service/working dogs. That inspired me to do some research and reach out to the people I know with service/working dogs. Here is what I learned along with some tips for the next time you interact with an individual with a service or working dog!

  1. Service and Working Dogs serve many purposes!
    • Guide/Seeing-Eye Dogs and Hearing Dogs assist their companion in navigating their surroundings and alerting them to situations needing attention (a car coming when they are attempting to cross a street, someone at the door, the fire alarm going off, etc.).

    • Service Dogs assist their companion living with other types of physical or mental disabilities (i.e. Mobility Assistance, Seizure Alert, Autism, Psychiatric Disabilities, etc). These disabilities may not always be apparent which is why it is important to be sensitive to the individual’s privacy.
      • I commonly see veterans with mobility service dogs who assist them with everything from pulling their wheelchairs to acting as a “brace” for someone with a prosthetic as they stand up or use the stairs. These dogs also assist with opening doors, turning on lights, retrieving things that have fallen or the service member/veteran is unable to pick-up, and so much more! These service dogs increase the service member’s/veteran’s independence and assist with re-integration.

        Service Dog, Bravo, bracing for his veteran as he uses the stairs.

    • K-9 and Military Units use working dogs to effectively secure areas, detect bombs/drugs/etc, and search for/track individuals.

    • Therapy/Facility Dogs are used in settings such as hospitals, mental health services, senior citizen/assisted living homes, universities, and schools/libraries for companionship and emotional support. Often times, these dogs presence helps to ease individual’s anxiety and bring a calming presence to a difficult situation.

      Therapy Dog, Bobbie, visiting patients at a hospital.

      Therapy Dog, Bobbie, visiting patients at a hospital.

    • A Major Distinction Between the Types:
      • A Service Dog is specifically paired with one individual to aide him/her with his/her disability and increase his/her independence. Ultimately, the dog is meant to assist it’s companion, not to be distracted or draw attention from others.
      • The job of a Therapy/Facility Dog is to interact with patients, the public, etc. and to be pet. They are handled by a facilitator who works with the dog in various settings with the public.
  2. Approach an individual with a service dog the same way you would someone without a service dog, but be aware of the following:
    • If the dog is a service dog, it should be wearing some type of vest/jacket, “backpack,” or harness. If the vest says, “Working Dog. Do not Pet.” then do not focus your attention towards the animal.
      • NOTE: K-9 Unit Dogs and Military Working Dogs should not be approached or distracted while they are “on duty.”
    • Before interacting with the dog, always ask it’s companion/handler if it is OK. Sometimes, interacting with the dog can disturb it’s focus and take away from the purpose he/she is serving for the owner/handler.
      • If the owner/handle does not want you to interact with the dog, do not become embarrassed or upset. The owner/handler has specific needs and reasons why it is not the appropriate time to interact with the dog.
    • Do not feed service dogs unless the owner/handler has given you permission. They are specifically trained with different methods and some only receive treats at certain times.
  3. It is OK to ask about the dog, but you should avoid asking about it’s purpose, especially when it is not obvious, because that is a personal matter.
    • If you are interested in the dog, you can ask questions such as:
      • What breed is your dog?
      • What is your dog’s name? (NOTE: Sometimes people will not answer this question so that the dog will not be called or respond to others)
      • How old is your dog?
      • Which organization trained your dog?
      • Have you worked with dogs in the past?
    • Do not ask personal or invasive questions such as:
      • Why do you have a service dog?
      • Is it necessary for you to have a service dog?
      • May I see it do something for you? (i.e. open the door, push a button, pick something up, etc.)
    • For business owners, restaurant/retail staff, etc. the only 2 questions you can legally ask according to the Americans with Disabilities Act are:
      • “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?”
      • “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
      • “Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”
  4. If you have a non-service dog with you and you come across someone who is using his/her service dog, do not let your dog interact with his/her service dog. Keep your dog under control and always ask if it is OK for your two dogs to interact prior to letting your dog have a little “freedom of the leash.”

Service Dogs are truly wonderful and have an amazing capacity to enhance the lives of their companions. Next time you come across an individual with a service dog, I hope these tips will serve you well!

Sparkle On,