How to Approach a Service Dog Safely

Category_Dogs Category_Informational Category_Safety Category_Service_Dogs Writer_MaryBeth_Bittel

Sparky Steps - How to Approach a Service Dog Safely

How to Approach a Service Dog Safely

Here at Sparky Steps, we provide all kinds of caring pet services – and dog walking is one of our most popular options. We’re big advocates of approaching leashed canines in a careful, responsible way. In fact, you should check out a recent blog post we shared on the subject. So here’s a related “pup quiz”: What’s the best approach to use when you encounter a leashed service dog? You’re probably familiar with the guide dogs often used by visually impaired individuals. But increasingly, folks with other physical challenges rely on specially trained canines to help facilitate greater independence. Service dogs can actually be taught to assist with all sorts of functions. They might provide hearing cues or balance support, for example. Some highly perceptive pups can even learn to sense an oncoming seizure or other health emergency. Of course, animal lovers find practically any canine cute and appealing. And because service dogs tend to remain so calm and focused, they may appear even more approachable than the average pooch on a walk. That’s why it’s critical to remember that these particular pets are on active duty. So always keep these safety guidelines in mind:


Duty First

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lets service dogs accompany their owners where most regular pets can’t go. Of course, when you see a friendly-looking canine in an unexpected place, you may begin approaching automatically. But stop yourself. Remember, that dog may be focused on sensing vital medical cues or scanning the environment.



How can you tell if you’re looking at a bona fide service animal? That’s certainly a fair question. According to the Anything Pawsable website, you technically can’t — unless the handler chooses to confirm it. Basic propriety discourages asking this person about a potential disability (and be warned that certain states may actually consider such questions outright harassment). Contrary to popular belief, some service dogs don’t wear identifying vests or collars to preserve their human’s privacy. So if you see a canine in an uncommon location, it’s always safest to presume that animal is fulfilling some functional role.



Think of any service canine and his handler as a unified team. According to veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker, always disregard the dog and address the human first. If you pet that pup, you could distract the animal from sensing the silent cues he needs to perform his job properly. This could actually endanger the handler, and/or others in the area.


Hands Off

Similarly, Dr. Becker suggests that you should never pet or touch a service dog without advance permission from the handler. If your request is denied, remember it’s nothing personal. Releasing that canine to accommodate a greeting might mean breaking focus at an especially critical time. Likewise, don’t offer treats without handler permission. While many service dogs are trained to avoid surprise edibles, tasty tidbits can be tough to ignore.


Rover Restraint

Do you have your own pet with you? Sometimes it’s especially tricky to discourage a greeting in this situation — but do your best. Remain at a slight distance, and refrain from making physical contact with the service animal. If you need to approach or pass, try to allow a bit of courtesy space around both the handler and the service dog. In conclusion, stay alert to subtle cues that an individual may be working with a service animal. When you’re unsure, avoid making initial eye or body contact with the dog. If you’d like to double-check in a polite way, you could always say, “What a beautiful and well-behaved pup! May I say hello?” Again, always seek handler permission first. Want to learn more about service animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act? You can visit the ADA website or the American Service Dog Association website. You can also call the toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301. And if you’d like to learn more about the various types of service dog specializations, check out the helpful summary provided on the Anything Pawsable website.


Written by Marybeth Bittel



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