Service Dogs: Awareness, Etiquette, and Things to Know

International Assistance Dog Week, or IADW, is the week each year in which we celebrate all the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs. Service dogs help people cope with their disability-related limitations. They hold an important and valued place in our society, but we seldom know the proper way to act around them. So, in recognition of International Assistance Dog Week, here’s a quick primer on service dogs:

Service Dogs

What is a service dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an assistance or service dog is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This disability could be physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental. Service dogs typically train for multiple months before they are matched with their future handler. Common examples of work or tasks performed by service dogs include alerting a person who is about to have a seizure or calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack.


Using proper etiquette

If you’re crazy about dogs, chances are you want to pet each and every one you see. However, you should never touch a service animal without asking permission from the handler. The proper etiquette is to treat the service dog as you would a person on the job. Touching or petting a working dog can break their concentration and impede their tending to their handler.

You should also refrain from crowding around, talking to, or offering food to service dogs. All of these things can impact the well-being of the handler and the dog’s ability to do their job, especially if they are in the process of completing a command. The best thing to do is to politely ignore the dog and respect their space while they are on duty.


Are service dogs the same as emotional support animals?

Service dogs and emotional support dogs are two different things. While service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks, emotional support dogs offer moral support with their calming presence. For example, a service dog may guide a visually-impaired person, while an emotional support animal can provide support to their owner during a panic attack. Emotional support dogs also require a prescription by a licensed mental health professional.

Service dogs and emotional support dogs also have different rights. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are permitted in businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the general public. This means that service dogs can accompany their handlers in places where pets are prohibited, such as restaurants or hospitals. Emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA.


Be respectful towards handlers

When you come across an individual with a service dog, you may have the impulse to ask them, “Why?” Keep in mind, not all disabilities are visible. A person with epilepsy, for example, may outwardly appear the same as someone without the condition. When you ask a person why they have a service dog, it can feel like you are asking them, “What’s wrong with you?” It is disrespectful and an intrusion on their privacy.

In fact, there are laws in place that protect the privacy of a person with a service dog. You cannot ask a person with a disability to present medical or training documentation, or ask that the dog prove their ability to perform a task. There is also no requirement for service dogs to wear a vest. These laws exist to help protect the privacy of the handler. Always remember to be kind and respectful of the handler.


They have their downtime, too!

A common misconception is that service dogs never get to relax. This couldn’t be further from the truth! When services dogs aren’t on the job, they receive plenty of love and attention at home. Service dogs can be “regular” dogs when they’re not tending to their handler. Just like humans come home to relax after a hard day of work, service dogs get some much-deserved exercise, downtime, and (of course) playtime!

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