Etiquette & Tips for People *New* to Service Dogs

Work dog

Service Dog Etiquette


If you’ve never encountered a person with a service dog before, it might feel like an awkward scenario; you might be unsure what you’re supposed to do, or not do, in relation to the dog.

You might think, well, it’s a dog, so how complicated can it be?, but there are some helpful – and very important – tips to ensure you are acting appropriately in this scenario.

He may look cute, but a service dog is actually a pretty serious thing.


A Service Dog is a Dog at Work


Yes, a service dog is still a dog. You may be naturally tempted to pet or talk to the dog, especially if it is very cute and fluffy.

However, this is a special kind of dog that has gone through training related to their person’s disability.

These dogs help their person with a wide variety of different tasks and have many different purposes, a lot of which may or may not be obvious to you.


Work dog


So when you first meet a person who has a service dog, realize that the dog is not acting as a pet (although he may act more like a pet after he goes home from work, just like some of us humans);

But as a dog who is at work, performing an important task.

Similar to if you met a person who was at work, it is polite not to interrupt abruptly – or at all -while they are on duty.



Talk to the Person First


The service dog is a very important part of a person’s safety and well being. It is recommended to always speak with the person first, not to directly to the dog.The dog is on duty and likely needs to stay focused on its task.

It is best to avoid distracting the dog in any way, make a lot of noise, or talk to the dog without first getting permission from his person.

Similarly, avoid touching or offering food to the dog unless you have obtained explicit permission from the person. Just speak to the person at least at first; communication is key.


Private and Personal Information


green locka

It is best to avoid asking personal questions about the disability.

The dog is not an advertisement in which the person wishes tell the world about their disability.

In many cases, people want personal privacy just like anyone else. Many disabilities are invisible, and people may be very sensitive about them.

If they want to share this information with you, then allow them the chance to naturally volunteer it, otherwise, keep the conversation lightweight and neutral. People really appreciate this gesture.


Talking About the Service Dog


You can always ask, but some people may not even be interested in speaking about their dog with you. To you it may be an exciting new experience, but to them they are probably/maybe just trying to go about their day.

They may have things to do and places to go and things to worry about, just like other people. The dog is not simply a ‘show and tell’ item. So don’t take it personally if they do not wish to speak about the dog.

Try to imagine how many other people might ask them about the dog on a regular basis. Perhaps some people may  tire of this attention after a while.


Good Dog Behaviour


Most service dogs will be well behaved and have been trained to be socially polite.

If you encounter a service dog who isn’t being polite, find out first if there was a good reason for his behaviour (barking, growling, poor manners) If the behaviour is destructive or is disrupting an activity or situation, you can ask the person to remove the dog.

Keep in mind, some dogs are trained to bark a few times before their person is about to encounter a seizure, so there may be a legit reason for behaviours that you might not be aware of; so hesitate before jumping to conclusions (I suppose that is a good idea for the rest of life, as well!)


German Sheperd

Afraid of Dogs?

If you’re very afraid of dogs, you still have a few options for what to do if you encounter a person with their dog if you are at work or in another public place. If possible, just stay away from the area where the dog is.

If you are at your place of work, see if you can privately arrange for a co-worker to assist with your tasks. Another option is to ask the person if it’s alright the dog lie down, as long as it doesn’t interfere with its work.

I think it is safe to say that these dogs would be far less likely to bark or bite at you compared to any random dog you might encounter in the park. However, fear of dogs is a real thing and I can understand your worry.

If Other People Complain About the Service Dog


Some people may not be sensitive or informed about service dogs whatsoever. If someone complains and does not wish to have the dog present, you can explain to them that this is a working dog that is medically necessary. Federal law allows and protects the rights of the person who has the dog and they are together permitted in public places.

This is not a pet. Dare I say this is more like a medical aid than a pet; similar to a wheelchair, crutches, or a prescription medication. It is required for the safety and wellbeing of the person.

Thank you so much for reading about Service Dog Etiquette! I am sure it will be greatly appreciated 🙂

Sam Nelson

Sam is an experienced writer, advocate for people with disabilities and mental health, dog lover, artist, philosopher, and generally complicated human being.

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