Updated date:

How to Act Around a Service Dog: Etiquette for Everyone

Service Dog In-Training

River, a service dog in-training

River, a service dog in-training

How Should You Act Around a Service Dog?

How should you act around a service dog?

A person's natural instinct is to pet and play with dogs.

Unfortunately, we must all respect the vest or cape of the service dog and ignore the dog as much as possible. That means not petting it, touching it, distracting it, talking to it, teasing it, or especially feeding it.

So, how should you act? Really the best way and only recommended way is by totally ignoring the dog the same way you would politely ignore a wheelchair or cane.

A service dog that is not ignored may become "ruined" and unusable by its owner, and given that service dogs are both very hard to find for specific conditions and extremely expensive (typically averaging $15,000 each) this can be devastating for the dog's owner.

By violating this etiquette, you have also just helped contribute to the person's loss of freedom and possibly made it necessary for the owner to give up the dog, which would be heartbreaking, and for the person to require the use of a Personal Care Attendant (PCA)—another person shadowing them all the time—to provide some of the services that the dog used to perform.

Do you work around a service dog?

A Working Service Dog

River, in her service dog working vest

River, in her service dog working vest

An Off-Duty Service Dog

Off-duty service dog

Off-duty service dog

Service Dog Basics for the Public

Do you have a hard time working around a service dog?

It's very hard for some people to be around service dogs and service dogs in-training because a person's natural instinct is to pet and play with dogs, especially the healthy well-kept dogs who work as service dogs.

Unfortunately, we must all respect the vest or cape of the service dog and ignore the dog as much as possible rather than petting it, touching it, distracting it, talking to it or teasing it, or even looking at it.

When the cape/vest is on, the dog is working

After all, whenever the cape is on, the dog is working hard, whether it looks like it to you or not.

Among other things, the dog is working very hard to ignore you and the tiny morsel of food on the floor over there that looks tasty.

The dog is also focused on its handler, remaining alert for any commands, scents, or hand signals for action.

It falls asleep all the time. How is that "working"?

Most service dogs are trained to catch a nap whenever possible during the day to give them the energy they need when their work is most actively needed.

Napping at strategic times, such as lunchtime and meetings, is a type of work essential for them to do their service dog work; the dog is not in any way "falling asleep on the job" in a negative sense.

So, how should you act?

Really the best way is by ignoring the dog the same way you would politely ignore a wheelchair or cane.

The service dog and its handler try to minimize the distraction the dog provides to the public, but the public needs to learn and obey manners with respect to the dog and the disabled person (or dog trainer) also.

Remember that it's not polite to stare, point, or talk about people.

One thing you should never do

It's very impolite to ask why someone uses a service dog because their disability is private health information.

Benefits of service dogs

Service dogs can be of great benefit to people with all sorts of disabilities, including invisible disabilities like diabetes, asthma, vertigo, and psychiatric disabilities.

Don't assume that a person who "looks good" and is with a service dog isn't disabled just because the disability isn't obvious to you.

Bonus: Service dogs are also a calming, friendly presence around the office or place or business.

And finally...

Remember, if a service dog's vest is on they are working.

Service dogs are NOT pets, by law, and interfering with a service dog team is actually a crime in most states.

The same manners that apply to a wheelchair apply to a service dog: that's the easiest way to remember what's right or wrong most of the time.

For more service dog information, check out these articles:

  • Service Dogs Can Assist with Many Invisible Disabilities
    Service dogs can help people with many kinds of disabilities, not just those with obvious physical problems.
  • PawPADs: A Service Dog Training School
    "Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs (PawPADs) is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization in Savage, MN. It provides highly trained assistance dogs to persons with disabilities." --Linda Ball
  • Service Dog Laws
    Service dog laws regulate the rights and responsibilities of service dog owners. A service dog can be used by anyone who has a disability. Service dogs must be permitted to enter businesses.


Barbara on June 26, 2018:

What does it mean when a service dog with its owner walks over to you and lays on your feet? This has happened to me twice. All animals seem drawn to me.

Sienna Aspen on January 14, 2016:

Thank you for sharing this information! A lot of people are uninformed about how to act around service animals.

Visitor on November 25, 2013:

Ignorant members of the public attacked, terrified, and permanently ruined my service dog. There goes a $25,000 investment in time, energy, and training, to say nothing of the heartache and emotional trauma this caused me and then I was fired because I didn't do as good of a job without my dog to help with my disability. LISTEN UP, EVERYONE! This article has something important to say!!

Laura Schneider (author) from Minnesota, USA on March 03, 2013:

I've heard so many horror stories... Yes, it terrorizes our dogs whenever the public interacts with them. Hopefully we can educate people by writing about our experiences and the enormous impacts the public can have.

April from Catawba, NC on March 03, 2013:

Ha! My favorite is the 6ft 200 lb men who melt away into children making cooing and blubbering sounds to the dog. It's like wow so much for the tough guy image. I trained my guy to be able to socialize with a permission command. He actually looks at me when someone comes out overly excited. See's if it's alright or not, and if I don't give permission he completely ignores them. The worst experience I have had is the parents who allow their children to run around completely unmonitored. I have actually had children run up and stomp on my dogs paws and tail! Which I was shopping for eggs that ended up all over the floor. When I turned around to scowl the parents grabbed their kids and ran away, but come on. They should have done better than that! It actually terrorizes our service animals. Great article! Now if we could get this information to parents!

Laura Schneider (author) from Minnesota, USA on July 22, 2012:

Thank you so much! I've got to write more articles like this...

Laura Schneider (author) from Minnesota, USA on July 22, 2012:

It's really hard some days, isn't it? You try so hard, and The Public just pushes and pushes past the realm of politeness and into illegal interference. Hang in there!

Laura Schneider (author) from Minnesota, USA on July 22, 2012:

Thanks, guys! People are generally, in my experience, rude when it comes to service dogs. Hopefully this helps get the word out that service dogs MUST be politely ignored just like wheelchairs, eyeglasses, and canes are. (And your co-worker's extreme comb-over that's not fooling anyone).

rutswife on March 29, 2012:

this is a great site im putting it in my fav

amanda rutherford on March 29, 2012:

you said it! im so tired of you don't look disabled what's wrong with you. i try to keep a smile. or thous dum #%#$ who delibretly try to destract your dog with food waving saying here boy! my jango is usuly tied to me because of my RA.and saying please domnt do that he needs to stay focused. the man got mad and called me names!REALY your being a dum##&^and your yelling at me,

Related Articles