Service Dog Etiquette: How to Interact with Service Dogs

Author: Emila Smith

Service Dog Etiquette: How to Interact with Service Dogs

Many people are canine fans, so it stands to reason that when they meet a dog, their initial reaction is to want to interact with or pet the pooch. But service dogs are special canines, even when irresistible. They are among the elite trained professionals of the canine species, and as such, need to be respected, especially when involved in professional duties.

The rule to follow when you meet a service dog is “Do not touch or distract a Service Dog”.

This rule should be necessarily applied whether the dog is officially in service or being trained to enter service. These dogs are fundamental to the well-being of their owners, and if you intervene and distract a service dog, even with the best intentions, you are placing their owner at risk.  Distracting a service dog may prevent the dog from perceiving important cues that may be vital to the handlers’s safety.

The Dos and Don'ts of Service Dog Etiquette

Do Speak to the Dog's Owner or Handler. Not to the Dog.

Remember that the handler and dog work together as a team. If you want or need to interact with the team, direct all conversation to the person and not to the dog. The human handler’s safety may depend on the service dog remaining focused.

Do Not Touch a Service Dog Without First Obtaining Permission From The Dog’s Handler.

Touching a dog will inevitably be a source of distraction for it. The dog may be focusing on their handler’s body signals or following specific directions given by the handler, and touching them may interrupt completing a cue or even prevent the dog from sensing and alerting to an upcoming medical event such as a fainting spell or seizure. Making noises at or waving at a service dog can be just as distracting as petting them. Service dogs are trained to ignore distractions and remain focused on the task at hand, but all the same, it’s neither polite nor safe to distract a service dog at work.

Do Maintain Your Distance if You Meet a Service Dog While You are Walking Your Dog.

Never allow your dog to approach or attempt to interact with a service dog. You can ask the handler for permission for your dog to approach but never do so spontaneously or without permission. Other animals, especially other canines, are an incredible distraction. The dogs potentially could have an altercation.

a woman walking with her service dog and another woman looks from afar

Do Not Give a Service Dog Food.

The Canine Companions for Independence warn on their website’s Paw Patrol page that “Food is the ultimate distraction to the working dog and can jeopardize the working assistance dog team.”

Timberwolf Organics reiterate that, “Service dogs generally have specific diets and are fed at specific times, so offering treats or foods can be very disruptive on more than one count.”

Do Inform The Handler if Their Service Dog Comes to You or Approaches You.

Should a service dog come to you, nudge you, sniff you, or other, inform the dog’s handler. Do not respond to the dog. Ignore it. The handler will intervene and redirect the service dog. However, if a service dog comes up to you and their handler is nowhere in sight, the dog may be telling you something important. Their person could be in danger and the dog has gone to find someone to help. Follow the service dog, who will take you to their handler in need of help.

Give the Service Dog the Right-of-Way.

On sidewalks, streets, or paths, give a service dog and handler the right-of-way. This will assist them in navigating pedestrian traffic. Avoid walking next to a service dog without the handler’s permission. If you are walking in the same direction, walk next to the handler on the opposite side of the dog unless told otherwise. If you notice the dog wearing a harness with a large handle, the person is likely using their dog for mobility support or this may also be a guide dog harness. It is even more important to give the dog and person space and allow the team to navigate without being bumped into.

Do Not Assume That a Service Dog That Appears to be Napping is No Longer on Duty.

Canines will nap on and off during the day. This is also true for canines that are professional service dogs. If a handler is sitting or standing for any length of time, a dog may nap. But this service dog is still on duty when accompanying its handler. Good etiquette rules will remain appropriate and intact even if you notice a service dog napping.

a service dog napping

Do Not Assume That a Service Dog is Always on Duty.

Service dogs do have playtime and rest integrated into their daily schedules. When they return home and are not wearing their duty uniform, they are free to be just a dog. Because these animals are highly trained and must exert control for extended periods, handlers know that they require downtime from stressful work.

Do Treat a Service Dog Handler With Respect

Never pry into a handler’s privacy with questions about their disability. Remember that not all disabilities are visible, and even if you do not see the service dog handler’s disability, this does not mean they do not have a legitimate reason for a service dog. Whether a person is visibly disabled or not, questions such as “do you really need that dog?” “why do you need a service dog?” or even prying into the dog’s job are inappropriate and invasive. 

A handler and service dog are a team and are usually quite independent and capable. If you think that they may need assistance, always ask first before intervening. Do not be offended if they decline your offer of help. The handler probably has their reasons for not accepting.

In Conclusion

While many of us tend to want to love on any dog we see , there is a specific type of respect and set of ground rules to follow when encountering a service dog team that we must follow. Service dog handlers, like any other person go out to restaurants, go shopping, take public transportation etc. 

If you spot a service dog team while out and about, please remember these important dos and don’ts. Respecting the team’s boundaries is not only common courtesy, but ensures the handler can fully count on their dog to do the job they were trained to do and go about their day just like any other person.

About Atlas Assistance Dogs

Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one. 

We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit or contact

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