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Service Dog Etiquette

A woman and her service dog attended one of my etiquette classes this week. It was my first experience working with such a team. The class was learning about how to work a room with exercises that required stand-up participation and handling food and drink. It was a beautiful thing to watch the woman and her dog navigate seamlessly through the buffet line and effortlessly manage all of the mingling, hand shaking, and introduction exercises.  I was amazed at the unobtrusive, magnificent behavior of her dog and its focus on her, no matter what else was going on. For example, one of the class participants spilled food on the floor and while the average pet dog would have dashed to clean up a free snack, her working dog was impervious to the temptation.  The woman took me by surprise when after class, she asked me what she should be doing to have consideration for her hosts and show good manners when she and her dog are invited to attend functions.  The experience got me thinking that many of us may not know the etiquette of being around a service dog.

Service dogs are highly trained specialists who assist people with a variety of physical challenges, not all of which are apparent to the eye.  The dogs are readily identifiable by the vests that they wear when on duty. Service dogs are trained for a wide variety of jobs including guiding people who have low vision or who are blind, alerting deaf people to sounds, warning people of impending seizures or diabetic emergencies, helping flip switches or retrieving items for people with mobility problems, pulling wheelchairs up ramps, and providing support for people with balance problems. Service dogs are not pets, rather they are working professionals who undergo years of specialized learning before being matched with their humans. There is a difference between service animals and the controversial emotional support animals that have recently been in the news. The Americans With Disabilities Act (https://www.ada.gov) enumerates the legal protections that guarantee accommodation in public places for people and their service dogs.

Here are some tips for respecting your guests with service dogs:

Ignore the dog and focus on the human. As beautiful as the dog may be, it is on duty and should not be distracted by others. Doing so could cause the dog to take its attention of its human and miss an important cue.

Talk to the person, not the dog.

Don’t touch or ask to pet the dog.

Don’t offer the dog food or water, the handler will take care of these needs.

Don’t offer the dog toys, whistle to it, or otherwise try to draw its attention with sounds or motions.

Don’t approach a dog that is laying down or that appears to be napping, it is simply waiting or resting, but it is still keenly focused on its duty.

Don’t ask the owner about his or her disability or why he or she uses a service dog, such questions are an invasion of privacy and are way too personal.

Keep your pet dog away from the service dog.If you encounter someone with a service dog while you are with your pet, keep your distance so the service dog is not distracted.  

In answer to my student’s question about how to have good manners when she is out with her dog, speaking as an event planner, I would:

Appreciate knowing in advance that a service dog is attending. This would give me the opportunity to ask if there are things I could do to make their experience the most enjoyable. These would include finding out if the person had a preference about seating and to offer information about the location of water and relief areas, details that would be especially important if the pair were attending a workshop or long meeting. At our president’s home where there are numerous pets in residence, knowing in advance that a service dog is coming would let us ensure that the household pets were confined.