There are two problems with service dogs: They look very dignified, and we are touched by their dedication and loyalty. Why are these problems, you may ask? Well, When you combine the two, you get a dog who is almost impossible for the general public to resist. When we meet a service dog, we want to reward their heroism with a friendly pat or a treat. And we want to tell the handler that we admire their strength.

Boy with service dogFortunately, many of us are too self-conscious to approach strangers so boldly, but there are those who are either more socially forward or, as some people may think, thicker skinned.

The point is that not approaching a team – service dog and their handler – is the best way to go. Just let them pass on by as you would every other stranger. If, however, you simply cannot let the opportunity escape, it’s important that learn the proper etiquette so that you don’t put anyone in danger.

5 Etiquette Rules When You Meet a Service Dog

Polite greetings

The first thing you need to know is that when you approach a team, you should always address the handler first. When out and about, the service dog is all about work, if you touch or distract them without permission you can disrupt the dog’s concentration and can open the team up to unnecessary risks. It’s also just good manners to talk to the person first and ask for permission to touch their service dog.

Remember that is the handler’s right to say no. They’re going about their day and they may not have time to indulge you. They may also have a no touching policy because they would otherwise be inundated by people who want to pet their service dog.

Keep a respectful distance

If the handler is blind or deaf and you suddenly appear in their space they could get quite a fright. So keep your distance in the initial approach.

Distance is also very important if you have children or your own dogs with you. For one thing, children are even less capable of keeping their hands off dogs than adults and are major distractions. For another, even though every service dog is trained to ignore distractions, it’s very difficult to ignore another dog sniffing their tail.

service dog at pool

Consider also that your dog might be a little spooked by the harness and handle getup. She might become a little defensive and growl or bark out of nervousness. This is the last thing that the team needs.

Don’t ask for a demonstration

Working dogs aren’t show dogs or performing dogs, they have a serious job to do and they like to get on with it. Handlers should also be allowed to get on with their lives without having to cater to every request for a demonstration of crossing the road. In any case, it’s a rude and insensitive thing to do; like asking someone in a wheelchair to show you some wheelies.

Instead, be respectful and sensitive to the situation. If you have managed to strike up a conversation, avoid asking awkward questions about the handler’s disability. Respect their right to privacy and whatever you do, don’t take photos of them on your phone and post them on Facebook.

Keep food to yourself

Dogs love treats, yeah? But it’s not acceptable to give a service dog food without first asking permission. For one thing, it could distract them from their task. For another, you have no idea if the dog has any allergies or is on a specific diet. You could give the service dog something that makes her ill or gives her an upset tummy and then the dog and handler are out of commission.

Offer assistance but don’t assume it’s needed

Group of service dogsIf you feel that the handler needs additional assistance (for example, they are carrying heavy bags and you want to lighten the load, or the road is very busy and the traffic light is out of order), feel free to offer your help. Sometimes it helps to explain why you want to assist – like in the case of a broken traffic light. But don’t be offended if your offer is declined. Many teams pride themselves on their independence and don’t take kindly to perceived pity or sympathy.

Definitely don’t just take the person’s arm or hand, and very definitely don’t take hold of the dog’s harness and handle.

The bottom line is that respect should be your watchword. Don’t do anything that could be construed as disrespectful and insensitive. And if you have children with you, use the opportunity to teach them how to behave correctly too.