Top Tips for interacting with Service Animals

by Bryony Van Niekerk

It’s no secret that I love dogs, cats, rats, pandas, giraffes. Basically, any animal that I encounter I just want to reach out and cuddle (even if it is a big murder kitty a.k.a a lion). So, when it comes to service dogs, I seriously have to reign myself in and fight every instinct to not let out a high-pitched squeal of, ‘you are soooooo cute!’ while simultaneously coming in hot with hugs and kisses. I find myself doing this a lot at airports.

Service dogs are working dogs and are doing an important job. You wouldn’t go up to a co-worker in a meeting and start fawning all over them telling them how stunning they look. So why do we think it is okay to interrupt a dog while they are in the middle of a task?

There are different types of service animals such as rats who are trained to sniff out land mines in war torn countries like Mozambique, or miniature horses who provide mobility assistance. Canines are, however, the most preferred and popular species due to their high level of intelligence and trainability. Service dogs are dogs who are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These dogs can guide the blind, pull wheelchairs, alert the owners of a medical emergency (drop in glucose levels, oncoming seizures) or offer support to person with PTSD or other emotional trauma. wheelchairs, alert the owners of a medical emergency (drop in glucose levels, oncoming seizures) or offer support to person with PTSD or other emotional trauma.

Service dogs are not regular dogs and therefore how we interact with them out in public is crucial. Read on for some tips on service dog etiquette.


Speak to the owner, not the dog

Service dogs are more than pets to the people who need them. The dog almost becomes an extension of the person, and as such, they learn to function as a single unit using both verbal and non-verbal cues. If you do wish to engage with the dog, approach the owner first and ask for permission. With that being said, respect the owner’s decision either way. The dog may be in the middle of performing a task and any distractions or pull from their focus could have disastrous consequences.

Personal space

If you see a service dog and owner heading in your direction, be respectful and give them the right of way, allowing them to navigate through the foot traffic. This is especially relevant if you have your own animal with you regardless of whether they are well trained or not. Be sure to afford them plenty of personal space as well by not walking directly next to them or behind them.

Avoid distractions

Or rather, avoid being a distraction. As stated previously, service dogs are performing a role or carrying out a specific duty so calling out to them, making funny noises to get their attention, attempting to touch them or offering them food are highly inappropriate behaviours. You never know if a dog is allergic to certain foods and if a service dog falls ill because you snuck them a piece of cheese, it will not be able to perform their job, putting the owner at great risk.

Let sleeping dogs lie

While it can be easy to recognise when a service dog is on active duty, for instance crossing roads or navigating streets, it is important to realise that a sleeping dog is still on the job. It is very common for a service dog to take a quick nap while the owner is sitting in a restaurant or waiting in line. Do not see this as the perfect opportunity to approach the dog. Service dogs do get plenty of actual down time though in the comfort of their own home. This is where the dog gets to just be a dog and have plenty of playtime.

Alert the owner

If a service dog happens to approach you, politely let the owner know. Do not directly engage with or respond to the dog. The owner will correct the dog’s behaviour and redirect its focus.

Be respectful

Not all disabilities are visible to the eye. So, while you may just be generally curious in what the dog does, be respectful when talking to the owner and do not pry into why they need a service dog. If they want you to know, they will tell you.

When to intervene

The only time you should interact with a service dog directly is when you find them alone. If the dog is pawing at you or barking trying to get your attention, follow them. Some dogs are trained to seek help in these scenarios where their owners could be in serious need of assistance.

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