No matter how cute they are!

You can find them almost anywhere: four paws, bright eyes, and that impressive vest that announces their rank to the world. For decades, service dogs have played an essential role in the lives of millions of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Generally, if a person with a disability can enter a particular space, so can their service dog. Few exceptions, such as a service animal within an operating room, apply.

Ever since they were legally recognized in 1990 by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals have fallen into multiple categories. The three distinct types of support animals include service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs. Only a service dog is protected by the ADA. From working as a guide for the visually impaired and aiding with mobility to working for those with psychiatric disabilities (such as PTSD), service dogs have proven they can perform marvelous feats and have truly earned the designation of man’s best friend. Yet, although service animals are a familiar sight within the public, the rules for interacting—or not—around them are misunderstood.

Think you can interact with a service dog? Think again! Here are some top reasons why you should not interact OR distract (which includes petting) a service dog:

  1. They’re on the clock

            We all know what it’s like to become distracted. One minute we’re focused on the task as hand and the next, we’re raving about the newest TV series with a fellow coworker or scrolling through post after post on social media. It doesn’t matter that there was a sign by our desk that said we didn’t want to be distracted or had told ourselves we weren’t going to fall into the trap of endless likes and comments. Service dogs are the same way. Even when it looks like they’re doing nothing, they are doing something. Entreating them to focus on you takes away from their own focus on the task at hand: helping their handler. For many, this distraction becomes a problem as they pull away from skills they worked countless hours to perfect. Which leads to the next concern…

2. They are expensive.

Time is money. This is no less true in the service dog industry. Some can cost as much as $50,000. Each dog often trains for months and even years to learn the skills they perform for their human, whose needs are as unique as the dog itself. When you distract a service dog, you won’t just get their attention, you’ll detract countless hours poured into their training

3. You could harm their human!

Ever heard about the teen who had a seizure because a stranger refused to leave her service dog alone? Or about the woman who made a scene because her child wanted to pet a dog who was in training? The simple act of distracting a service animal for personal indulgence happens far too often, especially in a society that treasures instant gratification. Petting, talking to, or even trying to get the dog’s attention are big NO’s when encountering a service animal. Not only does it take away from the expensive training they go through, but it puts their human at risk.

4. It’s just doggone rude

Most of us wouldn’t take kindly to someone who invaded our space or distracted us when we were supposed to focus on a specific task. So why would we expect anything different when it comes to service animals?

Unless the dog is unmanageable by their handler or isn’t housebroken, no person has the right to question the legitimacy of a service dog. And no, Sservice animals are not required to be registered OR wear a special ID that designates them as such. General inquiries from companies and their staff can include only two questions: is the dog required due to disability? What tasks is does it perform relating to the disability? Even companies remain bound to strict ADA guidelines, which protect an individual from going to great lengths of showing the nature of their disability or illness.

“Service dogs do not sit at tables or on tables in restaurants unless they are pet friendly, and service dogs do not belong in grocery store carts. If the establishment sells food, it is considered a health hazard,” said the owner of Banner, a popular service dog. “Service dogs do occasionally make errors. The best way to tell them apart from fake service dogs is the owner (handler) will immediately correct the behavior.” She added that fake handlers don’t even bother with correction at all.

This all begs the question…

What do you do around a service dog?

The answer is surprisingly simple: nothing. Or, more specifically, you act as you would around someone with a disability. “Service dogs are not considered pets. Just as you wouldn’t ask to ride in a wheelchair, you should not ask to pet the dog,” says Haylee Bergeland, Executive Director of the Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society. Though the temptation may be hard, in the end, it will benefit all parties.

Consider helping both dog and human out instead by:

Giving them some space-Giving the pair ample space to enjoy society no matter where the destination is important—both for the human who deserves it and to the service animal who needs to stay focused.

Knowing when to be a hero-There are ~few~ times to respond to give attention to a service animal. One of these crucial moments is if it comes up to you without its handler. This means the dog is asking you to follow them back to their human as there could be a medical emergency that warrants a 911 call.

Educating yourself-Keeping informed of ways service dogs help their humans can be beneficial when dealing with those who’d rather ignore the rules or those who may not know them at all.  

Anyone can relate to the act of withholding affection towards an adorable dog—especially in public. The general rule of no touching, no talking, and no eye contact always applies to service animals—for their wellbeing and that of their handler. Choosing how to interact with a service dog begins by knowing the proper way to react when you see one.

BONUS:

Looking to train your own pet to become a service dog? According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), dogs who train for specific needs will require 120 hours of training for at least six months—at a minimum! During this time, the service-dog-to-be will also have to prove its readiness in public situations by working a minimum of 30 hours. This helps to solidify what it learned in training and teach them to be responsive and responsible in a variety of situations.

It’s important to know all the ins and outs that happen with training a dog for this line of work, but you can begin with these steps below:

Make sure you choose the right breed

Service dog breeds often include Labs, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers. Great Danes and Saint Bernard’s have a reputation for their ability to aid with mobility and balance. All the while other breeds such as Labs and even Poodles often train as medical alert dogs. It’s important to understand this when considering your specific needs AND what type of work would best fit the dog.

Train them for their “A” game

A service dog works tirelessly to complete training. This means helping their handler with tasks specific to their needs (such as alerting diabetics about changes in their glucose levels or warning them about an oncoming seizure). Some dogs even train to ward off unwarranted behavior, such as urges to self-harm or oncoming panic attacks. However, to be thoroughly trained means practice, practice practice. This repetition creates a working dog that is ready to aid its owner at any minute.  

It’s all about the safety…

For both you and your pet. A service dog is there to help their handler with their unique needs, but a handler needs to be proficient in knowing when—or if—a dog is ready to become a service dog. They must be able to assist their human while making sure not to put others at risk. This means they must be comfortable and confident in all public scenarios. This includes:

            –NO aggressive behaviors (no matter the reason)

            –NO begging for food (no matter how cute they look)

            –NO unwanted behaviors (such as accidents, excitability, or intrusion of others’ space)

But remember…

            It’s not always so serious! Training your own dog to be a service dog doesn’t have to be a begrudgingly boring task. While it’s known that service dogs can do amazing tasks for their handlers, there are also times apt for play. Try these approved service dog games to engage with your pup while learning and having fun. Many service dogs even get off-duty “breaks” in between working to do what every other dog loves to do: rest, play, and well, just be a dog.