We all know not to interfere with a service dog that’s aiding a blind or visually impaired person. But now that dogs—and a host of other animals—help people with a wide range of needs from mobility and psychological issues to chronic health conditions, and we see these animals often, what are the rules about interacting with them? Here’s what you need to know when you’re tempted to interact with that handsome retriever resting at the feet of a fellow diner at a cafe…or even that adorable comfort ferret sitting on the lap of the traveler next to you in the airport lounge.
First, it helps to know the difference between a service animal (typically a dog but sometimes a miniature horse) and an emotional support animal (also called a comfort animal) or therapy animal.
A service dog has been specifically trained to help a person with a disability accomplish activities of daily living or to mitigate that person’s disability. It’s important to remember that service dogs, while they can certainly be loved and cherished, are not pets. When you see them out and about with their handlers (the common term for service dogs’ owners or the person who manages them), they are working, says Flora Baird, national training director of Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to be matched with people in need of them. The use of service animals is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Any privately owned business that serves the public, including restaurants, airlines, hotels, theaters and sports facilities, must allow service dogs to accompany their handlers.
An emotional support animal is intended to provide therapeutic aid to its owner. To be able to call an animal an emotional support animal, its owner must have a recognized emotional or mental condition, such as anxiety, depression or a phobia, attested to by a doctor in the form of a letter that the owner may be asked to show. The animal doesn’t need to have any special training. The public use of an emotional support animal has lesser federal protection than the use of a service animal—in fact, federal protections for using emotional support animals extend only to air travel and housing (you can’t be denied residency because you have such an animal). Unlike service animals, emotional support animals don’t have to be allowed to go onto business premises with their owners.
Therapy animals are used by health professionals as part of their work with patients—you may have seen them providing comfort to young or elderly patients at hospitals, for instance.
It’s natural to be attracted to any sort of friendly-seeming animal when we’re out and about. But in most cases, especially when it comes to service dogs, these animals are engaged in important work that shouldn’t be interfered with. On the other hand, some handlers don’t mind and even may enjoy sharing the magic of their animals with others—within limits. Here’s Baird’s advice on how to best interact with these animals so as to be respectful and not interfere…
Always ask before you engage with a service animal in any way. This includes not only touching the animal but even just speaking (or making other noises to get its attention) or gesturing to it. Why is giving the dog attention without permission a no-no? Petting, feeding or engaging in any way with a service dog distracts it from its task whether that’s detecting a change in blood sugar for someone with diabetes or carrying items for an owner with mobility issues. Even if the dog is resting, don’t assume it’s “off-duty” and try to engage it on your own. Though these animals are working, you may get the go-ahead to engage with one if you ask the handler and are told that the distraction won’t be a problem.
Giving a dog a treat can be particularly problematic because it may have been trained to act or perform in order to receive food—so that your giving it food interferes with how it does an essential service for its handler. It could also engender bad habits such as wanting to eat “people food” or begging for treats at restaurants.
As harmless as it might seem, taking a photograph of a service dog without permission is also taboo because it could distract the animal. And if you’re out with your own dog and see a service dog, usually distinguishable by a special vest, try to keep your distance so that your dog doesn’t distract it.
If you’re a business owner or worker, be cautious about what you ask the handler of a service dog. It goes without saying that the mere presence of a service animal doesn’t make it polite to ask personal questions about someone’s health or disability. It’s not only intrusive, but also, if you’re a store or property owner or worker, it can be illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Only two questions pertaining to the service animal can be asked—“Is your dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” (And you are not allowed to ask for the dog to demonstrate the task.)
That being said, you won’t interfere with the animal’s work (or break the law) simply by striking up a conversation with the handler. Part of a service dog’s training involves spending a lot of time in public with its handler experiencing day-to-day activities including interactions with people. Some people who use service dogs really enjoy the social aspect of having a dog in public places and will happily chat about the dog, Baird said. Others would rather not—you’ll just need to use your social judgment as you would with anyone.
If you see a service dog without its handler nearby, look around to see if it’s trying to get help for its owner. Baird says that most service dogs will generally alert their handlers or their handlers’ traveling companions to a problem. It’s unusual for a service dog to solicit help from a random person or group. If you see a service dog trying to get attention, Baird suggests scanning the environment to find its handler or following the dog if it seems to want that. Then you can call for medical help if the handler needs it.
If a service dog misbehaves or is disruptive, you can ask that the dog be taken out. A service dog must be under the control of its handler at all times. Although service dogs are allowed anywhere their handlers are allowed, this doesn’t mean that they can, say, bark indiscriminately without intervention. (This is different from barking that’s part of the dog’s trained response to a specific situation.) It’s not discrimination if you ask the owner of a business you’re patronizing to ask the handler to take out his/her dog if that dog is barking, being aggressive or otherwise misbehaving. The business owner (or an employee) may ask a patron with a service dog to remove the dog if the dog is behaving inappropriately, but the business must offer to serve the person without the dog present. To put it another way, it can’t discriminate against the person by refusing to offer services, but it can deny access to a misbehaving dog.