Do’s and Don'ts of Service Animal Etiquette
Service animals have been trained to assist persons with disabilities in navigation, alerting owners to impending medical episodes, and other such tasks. In order to ensure the absolute safety and fair treatment of disabled persons, it is crucial to identify the right and wrong ways to interact with service animals and their owners. From a citizen trying to stay informed to a business making strides to become more inclusive, the following guide provides helpful information and tips on how to engage with service animals and how to protect their owners.
To help understand the proper way to approach service animal etiquette, Wyatt Regner, CPDT-KA, SDC offered up his expertise. Regner is the current owner and Head of Behavior Modification at B.R.A.V.E. Dog Training LLC, is a certified Service Dog Coach, and has his own retired service dog, Benny, and a service dog in training named Zeppelin.
What is a service animal?
Service animals are defined as working animals that have been trained for specific tasks intended to mitigate the symptoms of a handler’s disability. Also known as assistance animals, these helpers are most often dogs. However, miniature horses are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) under certain situations.
Some tasks that service animals can assist with are helping those with blindness or low vision with navigation, alerting a deaf or hard of hearing person to sounds in their environment, retrieving medical items such as medications or adaptive equipment, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, and helping individuals with neurological disabilities with emotional regulation. More tasks include pulling a wheelchair, assisting the owner in recovering from a seizure, and offering balance and stability support. Recognizing that service animals can perform a wide variety of tasks and that not all of them look the same is crucial to understanding how to interact with service animal teams.
DON’T: Interfere with the service animal’s tasks.
As stated above, a service animal has been trained to do specific tasks related to their owner’s disability. Because these tasks are vital for the day-to-day activities of the owner, and can even be necessary for the owner’s survival, interfering with a service animal by way of distraction is extremely harmful and can put the owner at risk. Keep distance between yourself and service animal teams, allowing the animal to perform their job.
“Some behaviors that may look like cute behaviors, or the dog’s just seeking attention can actually be tasks that are mitigating a person's disability,” Regner said. “For example, deep pressure therapy … looks like a person sitting on the ground, and the dog is laying in their lap. It's really cute. But that might be somebody who's having low blood pressure, or an anxiety attack, or is recovering from low blood sugar.”
Additionally, service animals must be highly focused on their owner in order to recognize and notify them of any oncoming medical episodes. Because of this, a service animal must be left alone to fulfill their duties, even if it seems they are not actively performing a task.
“Everybody's tasks are going to be different. The big thing is just to ignore the dog, because you don't know if the dog is working or not,” Regner continued.
DO: Treat the owner with respect, giving them as much space and time as they need.
No matter the circumstance – whether it is in a park, a crowded street, or a bodega – persons that require service animals should be given the accommodations that they require so they can enjoy equal access to the community. Make sure to acknowledge that a service animal is a needed piece of the owner’s medical assistance and daily life, and their need for a service animal should not be frowned upon, cause frustration, or lead to judgment.
For Regner, time especially is something that is essential to consider when treating a service animal handler with respect.
“It's just a fact of the matter that when you have a service dog, you do everything a little bit slower,” Regner said. “Getting out of the car, sitting down in the restaurant, walking up to a counter where you're speaking to somebody: there's extra steps there in order to get the dog in the right position and make sure they're out of the way.”
Allowing service animal handlers to take as much time as they need to go about their day-to-day activities is crucial to ensuring that they are being treated fairly. Certain words can go a long way to creating a space where a handler feels welcome.
Regner commented on how it can be stressful for both him and his dog to feel rushed by business staff or members of the public.
“I think being conscious [of the handler's needs] alleviates a lot of stress. Just being clear to the person like, ‘oh, take your time, absolutely, just whatever you need.’ … That's beneficial and helpful,” Regner said.
DON’T: Interact with a service animal without permission from the owner.
Oftentimes, young children, and even adults, believe that they are allowed to pet any cute animal they see, thereby frequently mistaking service animals for regular pets. Again, service animals are specifically trained to assist their owners with their disability, and any interference with their job can be dangerous for the owner. Be sure to give service animal teams the space they need to go about their daily lives. Remind children (and yourself!) that asking permission before approaching an animal is a necessity.
While touching a service animal is incredibly harmful without permission from the owner, Regner states that the most frequent issue that occurs is people talking to the animal. When people talk to a service animal, they are distracting it from doing its necessary job, which can create a problematic situation for the handler.
“Most of the time [talking] just makes the dog excited. But for the handler that presents an issue in which they need to advocate for their dog. And that can be really stressful for some handlers, because it can feel like a situation of confrontation,” Regner said.
Furthermore, distracting a service animal could cause them to miss a medical alert, which could ultimately be life threatening to the handler. Allowing the animal to stay focused on their owner should be taken very seriously in order to prioritize their health and safety.
The basic rules of how to interact with a service animal are simple, according to Regner.
“Don't look at the dog, don't touch the dog, and don't talk to the dog,” Regner said.
Service animals are valued members of the owner’s family. They receive lots of time, attention, and enrichment on a daily basis from their handler. However, they are working animals with important jobs to do, and, according to Regner, it is best that the public treats them like any other piece of medical or adaptive equipment.
DO: Understand that service animals may not be wearing a harness, vest, or other forms of identifying gear.
According to the ADA, service animals are not required to wear any sort of identification that they are a service animal. While many service animal handlers choose to have their animal wear a clearly labeled harness or vest to communicate to the public that they are working, identifying gear is not federally mandated. Laws regarding the equipment a service dog must wear instead fall to the states to decide.
Some states do instruct owners to outfit their service animals in specific identifying gear, while others do not. Overall, service animals and their specific look will differ based on their owner, the tasks they perform, and the state. It is important for businesses to be aware of the laws for their state so that they can guarantee access for service animal teams.
DON’T: Ask any questions about the owner’s disability upon seeing their service animal.
Under the ADA, public accommodations and businesses are prohibited from asking a service animal owner about their disability. Furthermore, they are not allowed to ask to see a service animal’s license or certification because these are not legally required in the United States. Many sites online offering this kind of identification are fraudulent and incredibly harmful to the service dog community because they promote a false idea of how a service dog should be represented, thus leading to public access issues for many handlers.
The only questions a business can ask a service animal owner are:
“Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?”
“What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?”
The questions above can only be asked if it is not clear the animal is a service animal, and if the tasks that the animal performs are unclear. Make certain that you understand the rights of disabled individuals in the context of service animals, and call out mistreatment in public spaces when it occurs.
While it may be okay to ask a service animal handler the few questions above if you are a business, the general public does not have a right to this information. Having many people inquire into the nature of their disability can lead to awkward and exhausting situations for the handler.
“[Service animal handlers] get a lot of questions about what the dog helps us with. Sometimes people will ask things like, what is the service dog for? … But these are questions that businesses are allowed to ask that average people should not be asking,” Regner said.
Asking a stranger about their disability simply because you see that they have a service animal is highly inappropriate and rude. According to Regner, the only time that someone should ask about another’s disability is after they get to know them personally.
If a member of the general public is concerned about the legitimacy of a service animal in a public space, the best thing they can do is educate the business staff about their rights. The ADA has a great resource, linked here, which outlines the questions businesses are allowed to ask service animal owners as well as the circumstances under which they may ask the team to leave the premises.
DO: Research the state-by-state laws concerning service animals in the U.S.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand service animal rights and provide accommodations for persons with disabilities is to do some well-needed research. A great place to start is the ADA website, linked here, which defines what a service animal is, and gives a comprehensive understanding of how to treat service animals.
Continuing on, Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center has put together a list of all the specific state-by-state laws regarding service animals in America, linked here. This list can be helpful for service animal owners who want to better understand their rights, and can also be helpful for businesses to know how to best interact with service animal teams.
Finally, City Channel 4 – Iowa City has created an informative YouTube video, linked here, going over some of the basic etiquette around service animals. The video includes closed captions.
At the end of the day, there is a right and wrong way to treat handlers and their service animals. Following this short guide can be a helpful introduction to the etiquette around service animals, but there is always more to learn.
One last important point to remember is to treat service animal handlers like anyone else. Speak to the person, not the dog. Wave hello. Say good morning. Ask how a handler is doing today. Transferring the attention away from the animal and onto the handler is important and can create a safer, kinder environment for service animal handlers overall.
Thank you so much to Wyatt Regner for this interview. As always, if you find barriers in our content or have suggestions please reach out to us at email@example.com and let us know so that we can improve!