Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
As a disability advocate and writer, I have seen dogs assist disabled people in many amazing ways. Here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with people with disabilities and their service animals.
Types of Assistance Dogs
Dogs can serve disabilities in various ways. Here are some of the most common.
Guide Dogs for the Blind
We commonly associated service dogs as guides to the blind, helping their owners to avoid obstacles. According to the website Healthy Pets, these animals are also taught “willful disobedience.” Dogs will disobey their owners if a command puts the handlers in harm's way, such as trying to lead the dog into a busy street.
Hearing dogs help people with hearing loss by alerting them to sounds such as a baby crying, a doorbell, or a phone ringing. They can also lead their handlers to the source of noises. Handlers can take cues from how their dogs react to their environment. For example, a dog may turn to look at something or stop abruptly, prompting the handler to do the same.
Alert Dogs for Conditions Such as Diabetes and Epilepsy
Some service dogs undergo special training to serve people with chronic illnesses. According to Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, these service animals are able to warn people with diabetes when their blood glucose is low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar before the levels become dangerous.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, these dogs warn people with epilepsy or family members when a seizure is coming. They are trained to lie next to a person who is seizing to protect the person from injury and to break the fall of a seizing person. Some are able to activate a special device that starts an alarm.
Assistants to the Physically Disabled
These dogs are specially trained to help people with physical disabilities in various ways such as:
- Helping the person to move and change positions
- Retrieving out-of-reach items
- Pressing buttons for elevators, opening automatic doors, or opening doors in other ways
- Picking up dropped items
- Carrying items such as shopping bags
- Turn lights off and on
- Going to another person in the home for help
- Call emergency services via a dog-friendly phone
- Pushing paralyzed limbs back in place
Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs
These animals provide support to people who have mental health issues such as:
- Anxiety/ panic attacks
- Bipolar disorder
- Mood disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Suicidal Thoughts
According to Americans with Disabilities Act FAQs page, the US identifies differences between emotional support animals, therapy animals, and psychiatric service dogs, although the animals may serve similar purposes. Psychiatric service dogs receive individualized training such as guiding disoriented people while emotional support dogs may not have a lot of training.
In the US, psychiatric service dogs have the right to accompany their owners in public places that emotional support animals do not. Some regions vary in their acceptance of emotional support animals in certain places. Some countries either do not have definitions and standards in place or are working on them.
Etiquette When Dealing with Service Dog Handlers
Treat Animal Owners With Respect
Do not engage handlers in conversation unless they initiate it. According to the International Association of Canine Professionals, here are some unacceptable ways that people talk to assistance dog handlers:
- “What happened?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- “Can you give me a demonstration?”
- “What is the dog’s name?”
- “Your dog is so good.”
- “I know I shouldn’t pet him, but I can’t resist.”
- “My friend fosters service dogs.”
Many disabled handlers feel that probing questions like these are disrespectful and an invasion of their privacy. Another invasion is taking a picture of the dog and sharing it on social media.
Speak to the Dog’s Owner, Not the Dog
When we see these trained, well-behaved dogs, our first instinct is to go over and pet them. We need to resist this impulse. Communication should directed to assistance dog handlers. The handlers may be offended because they feel they are being ignored. Do not praise animals when they complete their tasks.
Tapping legs or clapping hands to get the dogs’ attention is not acceptable behavior and distracts dogs from doing their jobs. Distractions may interfere with the handlers delivering a command. The dogs may be in the middle of alerting their handlers to a potentially harmful situation such as potentially dangerous blood sugar levels or warning of an upcoming seizure.
Ask Permission Before Petting the Dog
Ask dog owners before touching their working dogs. Some handlers may grant permission to pat the animal, but many have strict no petting rules. Some canines become so distracted by this kind of attention that their owners are put into a dangerous or life-threatening situation. If you have a pet dog yourself, keep it away from the service animal unless the handler says your dog is allowed to approach.
Let the Handler Know If the Service Animal Approaches You
Tell the owner if the dog comes towards you, or sniffs or nudges you. Do not interact with the dog; let the owner correct the dog’s behavior.
Etiquette Regarding Service Dogs
Service dog etiquette involves respecting the animal's role and not interfering with their duties. There are several things we can do to support them.
Recognize the Assistance Dog Is Doing a Job
Assistance animals have a job to do. They are actively fulfilling their purpose by doing things such as keeping their owner out of harm’s way, alerting them to medical or other dangers, or providing emotional support. We should not call them or interact with them as doing so may put handlers in danger. The animals are trained to focus on tasks at hand until their handlers signal that they are released.
Training starts when service dogs are puppies. They need at least two years of preparation before they are ready to fulfill their roles. The animals must be eager to please their handlers and willing to work. They have special training that matches their temperament and skills.
Do Not Physically Handle the Assistance Animal
If a service dog and his owner seem to need help, ask how you can help rather than grabbing the harness. Grabbing a dog’s harness hinders the dog’s ability to assist its owner. Working animals will catch some ZZZs when their handlers are sitting or standing for some time, but a sleeping dog is not necessarily off duty.
Do Not Feed the Service Dog
Dogs are trained not to beg and to ignore food in their environment. Offered food can distract animals from their duties. Some foods may not be good for the dogs and may make them sick. Sick animals cannot work until they are well. Service dogs are fed a suitable diet and often have scheduled feeding times.
Don’t Assume That the Animals Do Not Have Downtime
Working dogs usually get lots of playtime, exercise, and rest when they are home.
Avoid Fake Service Dogs
There has been an increase in media reports of people passing off their pets as service dogs so that they could take their animals with them when shopping or in other public places. This practice is potentially dangerous to the public for a number of reasons:
- Pets are not trained to be in public places. They are unpredictable, may panic, bark, or even bite someone.
- There is a chance that a nervous or poorly trained dog will go to the bathroom on a floor and leave a deposit that creates a health hazard.
- Some people are allergic to dogs and will have a reaction to the presence of the animal.
- Fake service dogs may attack real service animals, putting the handler in danger.
There have been media reports of fake emotional support dogs attacking people in public places such as airplanes. Some states in the U.S. now have laws in place or pending bills in their legislatures banning people from passing pets off as service dogs.
Dogs are amazing animals who, with proper training, can provide incredible support to people with disabilities. The service dogs and their handlers should be treated with respect in order to ensure that interaction is safe and does not interfere with the service dog's duties.
Diabetic Alert Dogs of America
Americans with Disabilities Act, FAQs page
Assistance Dog Etiquette, AI Media
Service Dog Etiquette, International Association of Canine Professionals
The Rule for Service Dogs: Don't Touch or Distract Them, Healthy Pets
6 Ways a Service Dog Can Help a Quadriplegic Be More Independent, SpinalCord.com
© 2018 Carola Finch
Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 25, 2018:
I learned service dog etiquette in 1968. One of my friends was blind, and could not do much outside her apartment without her service dog. She taught me that the dog was a necessary part of her. I was to address her, never the dog. I was not to pet or feed the dog. She felt anyone who touched her dog was actually touching her. During our friendship I learned the dog had plenty of down or fun time. When my friend was in her apartment she really had no need for the dog. Heaven forbid though that you move something in the apartment. The dog would be right there trying to put whatever was moved back where it belonged. The apartment building owner had a special area where the dog could play and take care of it's bodily functions. This area was cleaned daily by the building manager. Those who were alive in those days realize this was not common for any animal at that period of time.
Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on March 24, 2018:
Thank you for a very informative, well-written, and timely article.
I do recognize that some individuals truly need emotional support animals, but fear that there are too many people trying to pass off their toy pom as a service dog so that they can take their baby with them everywhere. It creates a potentially bad environment not only for the reasons that you mentioned but also because it creates resentment against ALL service animals, even those that are legitimate and necessary.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 23, 2018:
Excellent article. Having worked with individuals who have service animals, these tips are spot on. One of my colleagues at the time informed me that his dog had a "public" name and a "private" name. This was to keep people from learning the dog's working name, to prevent the dog from being distracted. Indeed, the general public needs more awareness.
Your advice and guidelines will certainly assist those who do not understand the value of these animals for people with disabilities.
How to interact with a Guide Dog
How to interact with a Guide Dog.
It takes a lot of training and concentration for a person with low vision to work safely with a Guide Dog.
Please follow these tips to ensure that Guide Dogs and users can successfully navigate the community together.
- The Guide Dog must not be the centre of attention. Please don’t pat feed or otherwise distract the dog when it is working. A well-intentioned pat can undo months of intensive training.
- Please don’t grab onto the person or the dogs’ harness. Always ask if they need assistance.
- When you provide guiding assistance, please walk on the person’s opposite side to the Guide Dog.
- Please ensure your pet dog is on a leash or under control when near a Guide Dog. When approaching, it may be helpful to let the person know that you have a dog.
- If you see a loose Guide Dog, please contact the local council.
- According to government legislation, you must allow a Guide Dog to go anywhere that the person working with it can go.
- Guide Dogs are fully vaccinated and health-checked regularly.
How should a Guide Dog behave around me?
- The Guide Dog should be well behaved at all times, and settled when not working.
- When working, the Guide Dog should avoid temptations such as begging for food,drooling and chewing objects around them.
- The Guide Dog should respond to the handler’s commands to maintain its concentration.
- The Guide Dog should be clean, groomed and free of offensive odours.
- People who work with Guide Dogs have been trained in the most effective ways to control their dog’s behaviour. Please only provide assistance if requested.
A. In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability.
A. No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
A. The handler is responsible for caring for and supervising the service animal, which includes toileting, feeding, and grooming and veterinary care. Covered entities are not obligated to supervise or otherwise care for a service animal.
A. Yes. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their handlers to and through self-service food lines. Similarly, service animals may not be prohibited from communal food preparation areas, such as are commonly found in shelters or dormitories.
A. No. A guest with a disability who uses a service animal must be provided the same opportunity to reserve any available room at the hotel as other guests without disabilities. They may not be restricted to "pet-friendly" rooms.
No. Hotels are not permitted to charge guests for cleaning the hair or dander shed by a service animal. However, if a guest's service animal causes damages to a guest room, a hotel is permitted to charge the same fee for damages as charged to other guests.
A. Generally, yes. Some people with disabilities may use more than one service animal to perform different tasks. For example, a person who has a visual disability and a seizure disorder may use one service animal to assist with way-finding and another that is trained as a seizure alert dog. Other people may need two service animals for the same task, such as a person who needs two dogs to assist him or her with stability when walking. Staff may ask the two permissible questions (See Question 7) about each of the dogs. If both dogs can be accommodated, both should be allowed in. In some circumstances, however, it may not be possible to accommodate more than one service animal. For example, in a crowded small restaurant, only one dog may be able to fit under the table. The only other place for the second dog would be in the aisle, which would block the space between tables. In this case, staff may request that one of the dogs be left outside.
A. Generally, yes. Service animals must be allowed in patient rooms and anywhere else in the hospital the public and patients are allowed to go. They cannot be excluded on the grounds that staff can provide the same services.
A. If the patient is not able to care for the service animal, the patient can make arrangements for a family member or friend to come to the hospital to provide these services, as it is always preferable that the service animal and its handler not be separated, or to keep the dog during the hospitalization. If the patient is unable to care for the dog and is unable to arrange for someone else to care for the dog, the hospital may place the dog in a boarding facility until the patient is released, or make other appropriate arrangements. However, the hospital must give the patient the opportunity to make arrangements for the dog's care before taking such steps.
A. Generally, yes. However, if the space in the ambulance is crowded and the dog's presence would interfere with the emergency medical staff's ability to treat the patient, staff should make other arrangements to have the dog transported to the hospital.
CERTIFICATION AND REGISTRATION
A. No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.
There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.
A. Yes. Individuals who have service animals are not exempt from local animal control or public health requirements.
A. Yes. Service animals are subject to local dog licensing and registration requirements.
A. No. Mandatory registration of service animals is not permissible under the ADA. However, as stated above, service animals are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules that are applied to all dogs.
A. Yes. Colleges and other entities, such as local governments, may offer voluntary registries. Many communities maintain a voluntary registry that serves a public purpose, for example, to ensure that emergency staff know to look for service animals during an emergency evacuation process. Some offer a benefit, such as a reduced dog license fee, for individuals who register their service animals. Registries for purposes like this are permitted under the ADA. An entity may not, however, require that a dog be registered as a service animal as a condition of being permitted in public places. This would be a violation of the ADA.
A. Yes. The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds that can be service animals.
A. No. A service animal may not be excluded based on assumptions or stereotypes about the animal's breed or how the animal might behave. However, if a particular service animal behaves in a way that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, has a history of such behavior, or is not under the control of the handler, that animal may be excluded. If an animal is excluded for such reasons, staff must still offer their goods or services to the person without the animal present.
A. No. Municipalities that prohibit specific breeds of dogs must make an exception for a service animal of a prohibited breed, unless the dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Under the “direct threat” provisions of the ADA, local jurisdictions need to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a particular service animal can be excluded based on that particular animal’s actual behavior or history, but they may not exclude a service animal because of fears or generalizations about how an animal or breed might behave. It is important to note that breed restrictions differ significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In fact, some jurisdictions have no breed restrictions.
EXCLUSION OF SERVICE ANIMALS
A. The ADA does not require covered entities to modify policies, practices, or procedures if it would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public. Nor does it overrule legitimate safety requirements. If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program, service animals may be prohibited. In addition, if a particular service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if it is not housebroken, that animal may be excluded.
A. In most settings, the presence of a service animal will not result in a fundamental alteration. However, there are some exceptions. For example, at a boarding school, service animals could be restricted from a specific area of a dormitory reserved specifically for students with allergies to dog dander. At a zoo, service animals can be restricted from areas where the animals on display are the natural prey or natural predators of dogs, where the presence of a dog would be disruptive, causing the displayed animals to behave aggressively or become agitated. They cannot be restricted from other areas of the zoo.
A. The ADA requires that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times. In most instances, the handler will be the individual with a disability or a third party who accompanies the individual with a disability. In the school (K-12) context and in similar settings, the school or similar entity may need to provide some assistance to enable a particular student to handle his or her service animal. The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless these devices interfere with the service animal's work or the person's disability prevents use of these devices. In that case, the person must use voice, signal, or other effective means to maintain control of the animal. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may use a long, retractable leash to allow her service animal to pick up or retrieve items. She may not allow the dog to wander away from her and must maintain control of the dog, even if it is retrieving an item at a distance from her. Or, a returning veteran who has PTSD and has great difficulty entering unfamiliar spaces may have a dog that is trained to enter a space, check to see that no threats are there, and come back and signal that it is safe to enter. The dog must be off leash to do its job, but may be leashed at other times. Under control also means that a service animal should not be allowed to bark repeatedly in a lecture hall, theater, library, or other quiet place. However, if a dog barks just once, or barks because someone has provoked it, this would not mean that the dog is out of control.
A. If a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.
A. No, the dog must be under the handler's control at all times.
A. Individuals who believe that they have been illegally denied access or service because they use service animals may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. Individuals also have the right to file a private lawsuit in Federal court charging the entity with discrimination under the ADA.
A. Generally, the dog must stay on the floor, or the person must carry the dog. For example, if a person with diabetes has a glucose alert dog, he may carry the dog in a chest pack so it can be close to his face to allow the dog to smell his breath to alert him of a change in glucose levels.
A. No. Seating, food, and drink are provided for customer use only. The ADA gives a person with a disability the right to be accompanied by his or her service animal, but covered entities are not required to allow an animal to sit or be fed at the table.
A. No. The ADA does not override public health rules that prohibit dogs in swimming pools. However, service animals must be allowed on the pool deck and in other areas where the public is allowed to go.
A. No. Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from the ADA. However, there may be State laws that apply to religious organizations.
A. The ADA applies to housing programs administered by state and local governments, such as public housing authorities, and by places of public accommodation, such as public and private universities. In addition, the Fair Housing Act applies to virtually all types of housing, both public and privately-owned, including housing covered by the ADA. Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers are obligated to permit, as a reasonable accommodation, the use of animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks that benefit persons with a disabilities, or provide emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of a disability. For information about these Fair Housing Act requirements see HUD’s Notice on Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-funded Programs.
A. No. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities to participate in Federal programs and services. For information or to file a complaint, contact the agency's equal opportunity office.
A. No. The Air Carrier Access Act is the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities in air travel. For information or to file a complaint, contact the U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, at 202-366-2220.
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The Americans with Disabilities Act authorizes the Department of Justice (the Department) to provide technical assistance to individuals and entities that have rights or responsibilities under the Act. This document provides informal guidance to assist you in understanding the ADA and the Department's regulations.
This guidance document is not intended to be a final agency action, has no legally binding effect, and may be rescinded or modified in the Department's complete discretion, in accordance with applicable laws. The Department's guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statutes, regulations, or binding judicial precedent.
For people with disabilities, this publication is available in alternate formats.
Duplication of this document is encouraged.
What Defines a Guide Dog?
Guide dogs (also known as service animals, assistance animals or seeing eye dogs) are assistance dogs trained to lead blind and visually impaired people around obstacles.
Guide dog breeds are chosen for temperament and train-ability.
Early on, trainers began to recognize which breeds produced dogs most appropriate for guide work. Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds are mainly chosen by service animal facilities. The most popular breed used around the world today is the Labrador Retriever. This breed of dog has a good range of size, is easily kept due to its short coat, is generally healthy and has a gentle - but willing temperament.
Roughly 10,000 people use guide dogs in the United States and Canada, according to Guide Dogs for the Blind, a private organization dedicated to training such service dogs.
A guide dog takes a rest on the floor and looks sleepily at the camera.
Guide Dog Etiquette
It is often hard to resist petting a cute, floppy eared dog when you see one. So, what do you do when you see a guide dog curled under a restaurant table, or walking along side a person who is blind or visually impaired?
Follow these guidelines when encountering specially bred and trained dogs
- Don't touch, pet, talk to, feed or otherwise distract the dog while he/she is wearing a harness.
A guide dog is a highly trained dog that acts as a mobility aide to the blind and visually impaired. When a dog is in harness, they are "on duty or working" and must concentrate for the safety of his/her owner or handler.
Never give food or treats to a guide dog.
Even if you are in a restaurant and the dog is under a table. They are fed very special dog food and anything else may make them sick.
Don't attempt to grab or steer the person while the dog is guiding, do not attempt to hold the dog's harness or give the dog commands.
A dog or handler may be in an unfamiliar situation that requires their full attention. Grabbing a harness or leash can disorientate and confuse the team. The handler will give the dog commands when necessary and will ask for assistance if needed.
If you would like to pet the guide dog, ask the guide dog user first.
This will give them the opportunity to say either "yes" or "no", depending on the situation and their dog's behavior.
If the handler says no when you ask to pet the dog, don't be offended.
The dog (or handler) might be having a bad day, or he might be in a hurry. Remember, a service dog is as vital to a disabled person as a wheelchair or cane.
Don't call the dog by name.
Understand that, for safety reasons, some blind or visually impaired people will not reveal their guide dog's name to a stranger.
If you are walking your pet dog and you see a guide dog user with their dog nearby, take your dog away from the guide dog.
A guide dog encounter with a pet dog can result in a challenging and sometimes dangerous distraction to deal with. It is best to let them pass then you can continue on your way.
Don't walk on the dog's left side.
Walking on a dog's left side may distract or confuse the dog. Instead, walk on the handler's right side and several paces behind him or her.
Speak to the person, not the dog.
Many handlers enjoy introducing their guide dogs. Both owner and dog go through training to work as a team, and in most cases develop a strong companionship through the process. Ask the handler if you can pet the dog. If they say yes, do not pat the dog on the head, but stroke the dog on the shoulder area.
Guide dogs are the guiding eyes for people who are blind or visually impaired, and you can expect to see them anywhere the public is allowed. If the person needs your help, they will ask for it. Otherwise, treat the dog’s owner just like you do everyone else you meet.
So, the next time you see those "Simply Irresistible" puppy eyes follow these few guidelines and you will insure the safety of both the handler and the dog. Contact your local blind agency for more information.
Related Service/Therapy Animals Documents
Recent Disability News and Updates
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Some assistance dogs are taught more than 50 tasks. The training for each dog is unique, and depends on the personality of the dog and the type of tasks that will suit the needs of their future owner, who is known as their handler.
The tasks that assistance dogs can be taught include:
- pulling a wheelchair
- helping people to balance if they have walking difficulties
- turning on light switches
- moving the arms or legs of people who are paralysed
- opening and closing doors, drawers and fridges
- assisting with making beds
- retrieving or picking up items like mobile phones or keys
- pushing pedestrian crossing buttons
- picking up clothing and helping take washing from a machine
- paying cashiers
- barking to alert their owners to danger
- alerting people to seizures (sometimes before they occur) or other medical issues, such as low blood sugar in a diabetic child
- finding and leading another person to the owner or affected child
The benefits for owners include a reduced need for carers, greater freedom and self-confidence. They also enjoy the constant emotional support, companionship and love of the animal.