As September is National Service Dog Month, this is a good opportunity to go over how you should handle a working service dog if you encounter them on the job. While this explainer will focus on the United States, similar laws and best practices exist in Canada and other countries with disability legislation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act does not define or restrict the dog breeds that can be registered and work as service dogs. Any breed, including mixes, may work as service dogs, though some are more common in specific types of service roles than others. However, service dogs will almost always be wearing a vest or other easily visible piece of fabric that identifies them as such. The fabric is a signal to you that the dog is not only trained for service but that it is currently working. It is also a cue for the dog itself, and a trained service dog will be keenly-focused on its responsibilities from the moment the vest is put on until it is taken off at home and the canine is off-duty.
Thereâ€™s a simple rule for this: service dogs go everywhere their human goes. The ADA overrules â€śno dogs allowedâ€ť signs or policies, and a person with a service dog, by law, cannot be told their dog must be tied up outside, whether the dog and their human are visiting a restaurant, a library, a school or whatever. Service dogs are highly-trained and will not, under ordinary circumstances, create a disturbance in these situations. So you should not be surprised if you encounter a dog in a place you donâ€™t ordinarily see dogs, and this, along with the vest, is another way of identifying that a dog is trained for service and is on duty. The only exception are areas in which it would be dangerous for the dog and human to enter, e.g., a person with a visual-impairment and their seeing-eye dog should not be let out onto a high catwalk with no railings where there may be danger of falling.
Generally, you shouldnâ€™t interact with a service dog at all. Treat the dog and their human as a unit, with the dog providing aid to the human and the human handling communication. Do not try to pet the dog, give it treats, say hello to it, or otherwise distract it or try to get its attention. While on duty, a service dog is solely focused on the needs of the human it serves. They will provide the dog with any commands or reassurances as needed. Remember, the human is trained to work with service dogs and you are not. If you do have service dog training, then you still know that it is the role of the human they are working with to interact with the dog.
Perhaps you smell or look particularly interesting and the service dog is showing some interest. With another dog you might naturally offer a hand for it to sniff, bend down and let it come closer and do a thorough inspection, and then take the opportunity to pet it. But you should not take a service dogâ€™s curiosity as an invitation to breach the previous rule about interacting with the human and the service dog. If the dog shows some curiosity and approaches you, ignore it. It may sniff a bit and then return to its human of its own accord, or the human may recall the dog and ask it to refocus on the task at hand. Donâ€™t make it harder by involving yourself in the distraction and trying to keep the dogâ€™s attention.
Service dogs are specially trained for all kinds of specific human medical needs, including preventing and mitigating human anxiety attacks, aiding in navigation for those with visual impairments, and even alerting their humans or other nearby humans to impending or ongoing medical emergencies, such as seizures. In this situation youÂ do interact with the service dog.Â If a service dog approaches you on its own, it may be trying to tell you that its human has been injured or is experiencing a medical emergency. So, if a service dog approaches you for help, look around to see if you can find a person in need of medical help, or ask the dog, â€śWhat is it? Show me!â€ť and follow where they try to point or direct you, and quickly render aid. Hopefully you are First-Aid trained but at minimum you can call 911 and try to get information from the person in distress if they are conscious.
It may be that the service dog is not trained to seek help and is not able to lead you to their human, but their being alone and approaching a stranger is still a sign that something bad may have happened. So, if you are unable to quickly determine where the person is, call 911 and tell them you found a service dog on its own and fear there is a person who is in need of help nearby, but that you are unable to locate them. In this situation, too, you should stay nearby with the service dog and wait for medical and police help to arrive so you can provide all the information you have about the situation and prevent the dog from running any further away and being at risk itself.
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