BY SORAYA FERDMAN
Recently, I noticed a person about to cross the street — right into the path of an oncoming car. Before I could lunge forward to pull her back, her guide dog yanked its owner to safety. I felt the strong urge to pet the dog, which in addition to being a very good dog was also an Australian Shepherd, the same breed as my own.
Then I noticed the words “DO NOT PET” across the dog’s harness.
The term “assistance dog” includes guide dogs, who help the blind; hearing dogs, who help the Deaf; and service dogs, who help people with a broader range of disabilities including but not limited to autism, epilepsy, life-threatening allergies, diabetes, mobility issues, neuromuscular diseases, and psychological trauma.
Thousands of people rely on these animals for independence. Assistance dogs perform services such as opening and closing doors, helping people into an upright position, and detecting allergens, low and high blood sugar levels, and more. But for those used to thinking of dogs purely as pets, it can be hard to know the proper etiquette.
Here’s what you need to know about how to behave when you spot a pooch with a harness:
1. Minimize distractions
Most assistance dogs are trained to pay little attention to people other than their handler. That doesn’t mean handlers aren’t bothered by people’s tendencies to pet, make cutesy noises, or otherwise distract their dogs.
“I’ve had people making noises, desperate to get my dog’s attention, while I’m crossing the street,” Laurel Hilbert, who lives in San Francisco and is blind, explained in an interview with Mashable. “My dog is very well-behaved, but he’s still just a dog. Those kinds of noises distract him.”
Petting an assistance dog may seem like a harmless transgression, but it can lead to the handler falling or otherwise injuring themselves.
Such was the case with Hayley Ashmore. Flynn, her seizure-alert dog, was being pet by a stranger when Hayley fell to the ground and injured her forehead and cheek. In an Instagram post reflecting on the events, Ashmore wrote, “My dog is my lifeline. I don’t say that to be cute… If he gets distracted this happens. If he gets distracted I can die.”
2. Talk to the handler
Remember: The handler and assistance dog are a team. If you feel you need to approach the dog for any reason, asking the handler for permission first is the best way to be aware of what the duo feels comfortable with, and to behave accordingly.
3. Keep your own dog at distance
Though dogs are social creatures, assistance dogs aren’t supposed to engage with other dogs while on duty. Pet owners can help handlers keep assistance dogs focused by holding their companion dogs a safe distance away.
4. No treats
According to Canine Companions for Independence, “Food is the ultimate distraction to the working dog and can jeopardize the working assistance dog team.”
Think of it like this: Beyond breaking their focus, some service dogs have special diets, and certain foods may trigger allergies. If an assistance dog is given something that triggers even a subtle allergic reaction, they’re not paying 100 percent attention to their handler. Less than 100 percent attention = bad news.
5. Therapy and emotional support dogs are notassistance dogs
While therapy and emotional support dogs are there to provide comfort, they do not receive the same training and are not granted legal access to the same degree as assistance dogs.
What distinguishes an assistance dog from what expert Chris Diefenthaler calls companion dogs, or regular pets, is the length and rigor of training. Before acquiring official status, assistance dogs undergo up to two years of training. Diefenthaler, an administrator at Assistance Dogs International, repeatedly emphasized this distinction to Mashable, explaining, “Assistance dogs have received extensive training and are uniquely equipped to help their handlers in ways neither therapy nor emotional support animals are trained to do.”
6. Don’t assume a napping service dog is off duty
All dogs nap, and service dogs are no exception. If their handler is sitting or resting for some time, it’s normal for the dog to use that time to catch a couple Zs. This doesn’t mean they are on “break” or that you have license to pet them. All rules still apply when assistance dogs are taking a snooze.
7. What do I do if an assistance dog approaches me without its handler present?
The question was raised last month when a viral Tumblr post told the story of Tessa Connaughton and her service dog, Raider.
Tessa was in a supermarket when she slipped and fell. Thinking Tessa was having a seizure, Raider went in search of help but was shooed away by the person he approached.
“She was swatting him away and telling him to go away. So I feel like I need to make this heads up. If a service dog without a person approaches you, it means the person is down and in need of help,” Tessa wrote on her blog. “Don’t get scared, don’t get annoyed, follow the dog!”
In an interview with Mashable, Guide Dog Mobility instructor Olivia Poff explained further: “If you see a dog in harness without a person attached to it, that is not normal. If you’re willing to help, following the dog is good option,” she said.
Diefenthaler, with ADI, says, “It is OK to check the immediate surrounding area to determine if someone might need help, but we would recommend calling 911 for emergency assistance.”
According to Diefenthaler, there’s a distinction between get-help behavior in a closed environment versus an open space. If you’re in a closed environment, like a store or a mall, it makes sense to follow the dog. But, “ADI would not recommend training a dog to search for help outside beyond a home boundary in the event the dog might get hit in a roadway or come into some danger.” In that case, Diefenthaler recommends that people look to see if the dog has an ID card with the handler’s contact information. In extreme cases, they may also consider calling 911, though there are reasons to be wary of calling the police. Poff suggested taking a quick scan around the room or asking the dog questions like “what?” or “show me.”
Experts agree that something is amiss if a dog in a harness approaches you without its handler — but it’s normal to be hesitant to follow a dog you’ve never met in an open space.
8. Handlers don’t need to provide certification
If you’re a business owner and it’s not obvious that an animal in your establishment is an assistance animal, there are only two questions the law permits you to ask:
“(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”
Handlers do not need to provide certification of any kind or answer further questions about their disability.
9. Assistance dogs are still just dogs
The relationship between assistance dog and handler may be different than that between pet and owner, but it’s no less loving. After a full day of work, most assistance dogs are ready to play.
“Once I take the harness off,” Laurel Hilbert from San Francisco told me, “He’s just as goofy and playful as any dog.”